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Testimony of Special Education Equity for Kids in Connecticut (SEEK) To Committee on Appropriations

Andrew Feinstein Feb. 23, 2023

Chairwoman Osten, Chairwoman Walker, Ranking Members Berthel and Nuccio, members of the Committee on Appropriations,

My name is Andrew Feinstein and I am the Legislative Chair of Special Education Equity for Kids of Connecticut (SEEK). SEEK is an organization of parents, professionals, advocates and attorneys working to support the needs of students with disabilities in the state.

You are meeting today to consider the impact of the Governor’s proposed budget on elementary and secondary education. SEEK wishes to express its views.

First, SEEK is in full support of HB 5003. We are especially concerned about the lack of special education teachers and related service professionals throughout the state. Students with disabilities are not receiving the services specified in the IEP in too many instances. Compensatory education often cannot make up for the loss of the right services at the right time in a child’s life. Fulling phasing in the Education Cost Sharing formula will provide more money for districts to address their shortages, especially when ESSER and ARP funds expire.

Second, SEEK is dedicated to the reduction in out of school suspensions and expulsions. All too often, students (and especially students with disabilities) are excluded from school because there are not the resources in school to provide them with the counseling, education, and therapeutic support they need. The JJPOC has recommended expansion of in-school therapeutic supports to reduce exclusionary discipline. We support a grant program to create such therapeutic support centers in schools with high levels of exclusionary discipline and high levels of disproportionate exclusionary discipline against students with disabilities and students of color. Any such grant program must contain a strong data collection element to assess whether the program is working.

Third, school psychologists now spend most of their time conducting assessments of students with disabilities. This means that they are unavailable to provide the social emotional and counseling support students need. We propose a substantial funding increase for the Regional Education Services Centers (RESCs) so that they can hire evaluators who can, on contract with districts, reduce the evaluation load on local school districts.

Fourth, The Governor’s Education Budget Bill, HB 6662, corrects the percentage reimbursement amounts under the Excess Cost Grant. This correction certainly should be made; otherwise, the appropriated amount for excess cost reimbursement will not be spent. Still, we find it troubling that the only appropriation specifically for special education goes to fund extremely expensive out-of-district placement. Instead, we should specifically fund the indistrict special education programs serving the vast majority of students with disabilities. Special education services are badly under-resourced in most districts, particularly so in light of the explosion of behavioral incidents and in light of the new requirements for structured literacy. The Legislature has created a task force to examine special education funding in Connecticut. Perhaps their recommendations will allow the necessary funding to be added to the budget in the coming years and we can do something to put the money where it is most needed.

Fifth, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires Connecticut to provide a free appropriate public education for students with disabilities and further requires that the State to enforce the law and ensure that each local school district meets its legal obligation. To fulfill this obligation, the state gets a substantial sum of federal funds. Sadly, SDE does little to meet Connecticut’s responsibility to the federal government. Almost all IDEA enforcement occurs when parents challenge school districts through the dispute resolution processes available. This results in a widened equity gap as parents with the resources to do so can fund private actions, while parents of limited means cannot. SDE receives complaints, but when SDE makes a determination, the result is applicable only to the complainant and the school district. To live up to its promise, SDE should be auditing, investigating, doing site visits, reviewing random IEPs, interviewing providers and parents, and ensuring that complaint results are publicized and applied to all districts. Unfortunately, SDE lacks both the staff and the will to do so. Notably, SDE’s lack of staff is due in part to actions of the Office of Management and Budget which has denied SDE the authority to create staff positions authorized by the Legislature and has slow walked the merit selection process for those positions that exist. This Committee needs to assert itself and demand that SDE is staffed to do the job it is legally obligated to perform.

We thank you for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions and SEEK wants to continue to work with this Committee.