Both federal and state law require that public schools provide special education to students with disabilities, a mandate that grows more costly each year. Next week, the All-Island School Committee will consider a budget for Islandwide shared services that is twenty one per cent higher than last year’s, almost entirely due to higher costs and lower federal subsidies for these programs.
As a percentage of the budget that Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James Weiss administers, it’s a staggering figure. But let’s remember that the so-called shared services budget of five million dollars is only about ten per cent of total spending for education on Martha’s Vineyard. Most of the fifty-million-dollar annual budget for schools is controlled by the towns.
The decision to administer a few programs centrally through the superintendent’s budget was done for one reason: efficiency. If the cost of special education seems high, imagine replicating the Bridge program — now hosted by the Edgartown School — in six different schools.
The Vineyard is far from alone in facing higher costs for special education. Over the past ten years, the number of students enrolled in special education nationally has risen thirty per cent, in part due to better diagnosis and reporting of autism spectrum disorders. Statewide, costs for special education rose fifty six per cent between 2006 and 2012, compared with thirty five per cent for general public education.
Intervening early to help all kids to succeed to the best of their abilities yields dividends for our society later on, and by all accounts, the Bridge program has achieved tangible results for the children and their families.
Yes, the cost is high, but what the Vineyard is paying to educate its students with special learning needs — about forty one thousand dollars per student — is not out of line with other school districts. The Vineyard’s strong support of its schools is a point of community pride, and providing appropriate education to students with disabilities is a key piece of this. To paraphrase Dr. Weiss, it is not just something we have to do, it’s the right thing to do.