Newsline Volume 31, Number 3

From the Executive Director

Federation Executive Director Rich RobisonMany states, including Massachusetts, are facing a difficult budget season due to the "Great Recession" and the end of federal stimulus dollars, which have helped fund services for the past two years. The Governor's Office has let us know to expect significant reductions in funding. These reductions will likely affect all municipal services, many human service programs, and schools, including special education. In an effort to be proactive about the impact of these changes, the Federation has been paying close attention to special education funding and the "Circuit Breaker" account. This article provides information about the circuit breaker account, the Massachusetts Coalition to Restore Special Education Funding, and how families can help ensure a secure future for special education.

Background: In Fiscal Year (FY) 2009, the Commonwealth's state aid circuit breaker account 7061-0012 for special education funding to local school districts was $230 million dollars. At this level, school districts were reimbursed 72% of special education costs per student in excess of four times the FY '09 statewide per pupil foundation amount of $9,332. Under state special education law Chapter 71B, section 5A, special education expenditures are to be reimbursed by the Commonwealth, subject to appropriation, at 75% of per student costs over four times the per pupil foundation amount. Due to the current economic crisis, state and local funding for public education has been cut. The special education circuit breaker account was reduced in the FY '10 state budget to $140 million. Funding was further reduced to $133 million in the FY '11 budget. The cuts total $97 million. Federal stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act replaced cuts in both special and general education. However, federal stimulus dollars will run out, leaving a funding gap in FY '12.

Mission Statement: In September 2010, the Federation joined a newly formed coalition known as the Massachusetts Coalition to Restore Special Education Funding. The mission of the Coalition is to restore funding to the Commonwealth's special education circuit breaker account to the FY '09 appropriation amount of $230 million dollars. The other Coalition member organizations include: Children's League of Massachusetts, Disability Law Center, Massachusetts Administrators for Special Education, Massachusetts Advocates for Children, Massachusetts Association of School Committees, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, Massachusetts Association of Special Education Advisory Councils, Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools, and the Parent Professional Advocacy League.

The Federation supports Circuit Breaker funding for special education for four key reasons:

  1. The funding eliminated for the circuit breaker program in the last two years was due to dire economic circumstances with the knowledge that federal stimulus money would fill much of that gap. With the end of stimulus money, there will be a massive funding gap in FY'12. Local school budgets will not be able to fill this gap. The FY’09 level of funding must be restored.

  2. IDEA, the Federal special education law, requires states not to supplant funding for special education programs and local schools must maintain their existing level of service. This is called "maintenance of effort" or MOE. When the stimulus money ends, if circuit breaker funds are not restored, MOE will be nearly impossible. This means students may not be able to stay in their current programs or receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

  3. Students and families who depend upon special education services do not generally have the resources or ability to fight school districts that, without circuit breaker funding, will not be able to sustain their current programs. The legal costs required to appeal a change of placement decision will be astronomical. Schools and families need to maintain their resources for education rather than for litigation.

  4. One of the original purposes of circuit breaker funding was to ensure that local school districts are not overwhelmed by the costs associated with services necessary for students with significant disabilities who deserve FAPE in the least restrictive environment.

Though circuit breaker is frequently associated only with the costs for students placed "out of district," in fact, this funding supports the needs of any student - in district or out - who requires intensive levels of support to succeed academically. The original purpose of this funding was to ensure student were appropriately served in any setting. It is the mechanism which ensures that the necessary "continuum of services" is maintained. School districts have come to depend upon this funding to ensure a high quality education for all students.

As the state budget process unfolds throughout the spring, please introduce yourself to state legislators. Help them understand the importance of a high quality education for your student and all students with disabilities. Real stories illustrating real needs remind all of us that in difficult times we can survive if we work together. Stay alert, Stay involved, Work for success.

Best wishes,

Rich signature

Rich Robison
Executive Director