Lawmakers seeking reasons for special education enrollment jump


DOVER — The lawmakers who make many of the key decisions on the annual state budget want more information from the Department of Education about why the number of special needs students enrolled in Delaware schools is climbing so rapidly.

Over the past five years, the state’s public schools have seen a net gain of 6,844 students. Of those, 3,507 are classified as special education recipients. From last fiscal year to this one, 79 percent of net growth comes from students with extra needs.

Special education students are more expensive to educate, and the state’s budget reflects that: The Department of Education’s spending has risen 21.4 percent, ahead of the statewide pace of 14.5 percent over five years.

Gov. John Carney’s budget proposes to increase spending on public education from $1.42 billion to $1.47 billion, by far the largest hike for any state agency.

That’s no surprise, however, given that slightly more than one-third of the General Fund operating budget goes to public education.

With the number of Delaware children in need of special services skyrocketing, legislators on the Joint Finance Committee questioned Secretary of Education Susan Bunting Thursday over the reason for the surge.

Susan Bunting

According to the Department of Education, there’s no one cause. Instead, the increase can be traced back to families moving to Delaware for its quality special education programs and advances in medical practices identifying more kids as having additional needs, among other reasons, although the exact extent of each is not known.

That jump in special education enrollment has meant that the state’s estimates for how many new educators are needed each year have been low in recent years. For the current fiscal year, officials projected a growth of 158 units, or classrooms. Exactly how many students equal one unit varies depending on grade and needs, with 2.6 students designated as complex special education generating one unit, while 20 regular students in grades four to 12 total one unit.

The state’s estimate this year was 52 units short, meaning the Office of Management and Budget had to find $13.4 million from other areas.

Of the 210 new units in the current fiscal year, 204 are for special education students. That means that nearly every new hire to match that growth is for special education.

One hundred ninety new units are projected as the growth for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Sen. Harris McDowell, a Wilmington Democrat who co-chairs JFC, questioned if districts are being too quick to classify pupils as special needs.

“I am concerned we are doing that with kids that have no physical disability. They simply have not had the environmental exposure through the elements of education in an early age and they’re arriving … where they are far behind their peers,” he said.

The Department of Education shot that down, pointing to other factors as causing the rise in special education students.

The percentage of Delaware students in special education programs, which was between 12 and 12.5 percent every year from 2004 to 2011, has risen to 15.6 percent this year, according to officials.

Catching disabilities or other issues early is crucial to prevent children from falling behind, advocates say. However, to the chagrin of many, Delaware does not provide extra funding for students classified as in need of basic special education services until fourth grade.

“We would be much better off to spend dollars in special education in the early years because you get much more bang for your buck,” said Rep. Earl Jaques, a Glasgow Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee. “It helps the children.”

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Kim Williams, a Newport Democrat, would phase in funding for basic special education students as early as kindergarten. The proposal has yet to receive a vote in either chamber.

It carries a cost of $1.76 million to the state and $650,000 to districts in the first year. In the fourth year and all subsequent periods, the price tag is $12.29 million and $4.54 million for the state and districts, respectively.

Sen. Brian Bushweller, a Dover Democrat, requested the department formally study the increase in special education, something Dr. Bunting said the agency will consider.

But for now, officials may simply need to get used to the fact that a higher percentage of students are special needs than in the past.

“You’ve heard a variety of reasons today why children are needier than they once were or we’re doing a better job of discovering those needs and serving them, so although I don’t think it may continue at the same rate it has done in the last year or two, I don’t know that the original, the long-time, what you called normal, will become normal again,” Dr. Bunting said after the budget hearing.

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