School-funding amendment would hurt children with disabilities
The right to public education has been critical to the success and progress of people with disabilities in New Hampshire.A few decades ago, children with disabilities were often institutionalized and refused access to the public schools. Today they are not only allowed to attend school, but in most instances have more opportunities to be fully included in regular classrooms and to access programs and curricula available to typical students.As a result, more and more students with disabilities have graduated from high school and gone on to college or productive employment.CACR 12 is a proposed amendment to the New Hampshire Constitution that would reduce or eliminate the state's current constitutional obligation to fund education and the ability of local communities to challenge school funding decisions in court.It is likely that state support of education would significantly diminish and local school districts would take on increased costs, funded through local property taxes. This intent is clearly reflected in new "adequacy" standards adopted last year, which reduced the total calculated cost of adequacy by $164 million. There is no reason to believe that current state financial support for special education would continue in its present form.If CACR 12 were to be adopted, it is likely that school districts, particularly in communities with lower property values, will be pressured to reduce staff and lower compensation, resulting in larger class sizes, fewer qualified teachers and well-trained staff, less experienced staff and higher turnover.All of these factors would result in fewer generic supports and less capability to accommodate students with special needs in the regular classroom, resulting in greater segregation and/or seclusion and possibly greater risks of harm to students or staff when dealing with students with behavioral challenges.Loss of valuable programs that make a difference is also likely, particularly those helping at-risk students who have the potential to thrive with limited support.Pressure at the local level will likely result in much more hostile and contentious school district meetings. There will be a greater risk of scapegoating of students with disabilities and their families since special education costs are federally required and other programs that people value may not be.Nevertheless, there will be pressure to under-fund special education as part of a larger strategy to cut anything and everything, especially in poorer districts. The pressures will be exacerbated in those communities with local property tax caps.We can also expect more pressure on the state to lower or eliminate any state standards that prevent local districts from making cuts of the magnitude they desire. The Department of Education's ability to enforce standards would be diminished.Politicians argue that this change will "resolve once and for all" the education funding challenge. However, the reality is that CACR 12 would result in drastically reduced state aid to many local communities. Legislators would continue to argue over the amount and distribution of state aid, however limited, while battles at the local level over school budgets would likely intensify greatly with significant budget cuts in many communities inevitable.The version that passed the Senate allows the Legislature to "mitigate local disparities in educational opportunity and fiscal capacity," but like all of the versions under consideration, does not prevent overall drastic reductions in State aid to local districts, including property-poor districts, or the obligation to assure that funding for all districts meet adequacy standards.A growing number of students with disabilities are graduating from high school and going on to college or productive employment. Only three decades ago, these same children would have been isolated in institutions or simply kept at home, with little or no chance of ever becoming independent, productive, taxpaying citizens. Supporting and strengthening public education is critical to the lifelong success of people of all abilities and the economic viability of our state.Carol Stamatakis is executive director of the New Hampshire Council on Developmental Disabilities in Concord.