Vin Gopal | May 13, 2019 | Asbury Park Press
There’s a reason why we hear a lot about legislators avoiding town halls with their constituents: You know that you’re going to get hammered, and you’re not always sure what about.
But when I walked into our town hall event in Eatontown last month, I knew exactly what was on everyone’s minds: school funding.
Conversations with residents across New Jersey have convinced me that our schools, parents, and educators need more help — and that, right now, they’re not getting it. Teachers are concerned that their students aren’t getting enough support. Taxpayers feel like they’re getting squeezed for every last dime, and aren’t confident that they’re even getting the quality of services that they’re paying for.
But I believe that there’s a way to help our schools while bringing sorely needed relief to a straining tax base. It starts with one of the biggest expenses school districts face: extraordinary special education.
Ultimately, if we want to fix our broken school funding system, the state needs to pay its fair share of the costs for students with special needs and the programs that support them.
This week is Special Education Week. Its theme: “Painting a Brighter Future, One Step at a Time.” It’s an opportunity to celebrate the creativity and collaboration of our educators as they help students with special needs learn, grow, and succeed.
Brady was going to be moved to a school with a program for students with special needs, even though he was thriving in a class with his friends. His friends petitioned the school system to let him stay in their class.
Great special education programs like those, however, can cost great amounts of money. And when a school district makes a real, heartfelt investment in these kids, more families with special needs students will often see that district as right for their child, too.
A fantastic — and growing — extraordinary special education program does not come cheap.
School districts spend on average about 22 percent of their budgets on special education, according to the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials, up from 13 percent in 2006. That funding — which can go to personalized aides, custom teaching tools, and more — adds up.
It’s no surprise that when a district goes to its taxpayers to help cover these mounting costs, residents balk. They may already be paying more in school property taxes than the two towns right next door, and everyone is feeling strained and squeezed dry. But when districts can’t come up with that funding, every student is hurt.
Every child, especially a child with special needs, deserves a high-quality, comprehensive education. Because of that, it’s simply unfair to expect a school district with a growing extraordinary special education program to shoulder the same cost burden as a district with barely any special needs students at all.
That’s where the state can step in — to make sure that no municipality is singled out and left behind. By allocating funds from across New Jersey to assist schools with large special education programs, we can relieve the burden on their taxpayers and bring sorely needed equity to an inequitable system.
Not only would this make school funding fairer, it would also make sure that every kid with special needs can get a quality education no matter where they go. Now, the money they need to learn will follow them no matter which school they attend, which keeps parents from having to make hard decisions about their child’s future.
Remember this year’s theme for Special Education Week? If we make these changes, we’ll be “painting a brighter future” for all of us: every student, educator, and taxpayer across the state of New Jersey.
I’ll be the first to admit: This new funding wouldn’t solve all of our problems. And, like anything else in our state, taxpayer relief is never given without a fight.
But that’s a fight I’m willing to join. Because I don’t believe in walking away from tough questions — not at town halls, and not in our classrooms. And this is a question that deserves to be answered.
Vin Gopal is a Democratic state senator whose 11th Legislative District includes municipalities in Monmouth County.
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