Special Education

Massachusetts is no longer in a class by itself when it comes to special education. According to figures from the federal government, Massachusetts for the first time does not lead the 50 states in special-ed enrollment. Rhode Island has taken over that distinction, with the Bay State runner-up and three other states close behind.

This reshuffling in the rankings is due not to a reduction in Massachusetts of the number of students getting special help, but by other states slowly and steadily offering these services to an increasing portion of their students. Though still not exactly middle of the pack, Massachusetts no longer stands out as classifying a disproportionate share of its schoolchildren as having “special needs.”

In contrast to the state Department of Education, which calculates special-ed enrollment as a percentage of public school students–unchanged, at 17 percent–the federal numbers tally special needs students in proportion to the state population in the age group eligible for special education. Massachusetts has long led the nation in this measure, serving 10.74 percent of 3-to-21-year-olds during the 1994-95 school year, compared to an average of 7.67 percent nationally. But in 1997-98, the latest year for which the statistics are available, Rhode Island overtook the Bay State, with 11.21 percent of youngsters served by special ed, compared to 10.88 percent in Massachusetts and 8.11 nationwide.

Three states–West Virginia, Maine, and New Jersey–are close behind Massachusetts, with special-ed enrollment rates over 10 percent. Three years earlier, no other state was within a full percentage point of the Massachusetts rate.

Federal officials see much of the continuing growth in special-ed enrollment nationwide coming from earlier identification–at preschool age and even in infancy–of children with disabilities, as well as a rise in the number of kids with more severe disabilities.

But the state Department of Education says it has seen no change in special-ed enrollment over the past several years. “It’s pretty much leveled off,” says department spokesman Jonathan Palumbo.

Which may be the point. In the federal figures, the Commonwealth has held steady in the school-aged group, age 6 to 17, in recent years, even declining from a peak of 15.1 percent in 1991-92 to 14.5 in 1997-98. In those same years, the 50-state average for school-age special ed rose from 10.2 percent to 10.9 percent. Only in the youngest age group, age 3 to 5, did the rate of special-ed enrollment in Massachusetts go up.

The Commonwealth’s relative stability in special education may be traced to a tightening of eligibility by the Legislature in 1992. That change in the state special-ed law, known as Chapter 766, clarified the definition of a special-needs child as one with a “disability” that hinders progress in regular education, and specifically prohibited placement in special education solely because “the child’s behavior violates the school’s disciplinary code.”

“With this change in statute, Massachusetts is doing a much better job at making sure the kids in special education are those who belong there,” says Julia Landau of the Massachusetts Advocacy Center. “It does a disservice to have any child misclassified as special-ed.”

The change was hardly enough to satisfy critics of the state’s special-ed law, which they call overly generous and overly expensive. This fall, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, Arts and Humanities once again takes up proposals to reform special education, which would further tighten eligibility and possibly revise the state’s high standard of service (entitling children to the “maximum feasible benefit,” as opposed to the federal guarantee of a “free and appropriate public education”).

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But Landau hopes the new evidence that Massachusetts is no longer so far out of the mainstream in its use of special education will focus attention on what she considers the real issue: money. Massachusetts forces local school systems to bear more of the burden of special-ed costs than do most states, she says, and that problem will only get worse as children who would not have survived were it not for new medical technologies reach school age.

“The fact is, these kids have more severe disabilities,” says Landau. “These costs are going to continue. These kids are not going to go away.”

With reporting by Carol Gerwin.