Richmond County Public Schools stand to have over $178,000 cut from its special education program in fiscal year 2021.
The cut is not the result of fewer students, fewer teachers or fewer services. It’s a result of the county prioritizing collaborative classrooms, which place special education students alongside their peers instead of relying on self-contained classrooms, where special needs students are taught separately, explained James Smith Ed.D, superintendent of RCPS.
Of the 219 RCPS special education students in the 2020 -2022 budget cycle, 185 are in resource (inclusive) classrooms and only 34 are self-contained. And since the Virginia Department of Education’s funding formula “incentivizes” self-contained classroom, the school system is slated to lose 27% of its special education funds.
Smith said RCPS use of collaborative classrooms is a “best practices” method that’s research-based and equitable. Furthermore, it’s a student’s individualized education plan committee that ultimately decides where each child is placed.
Parents are part of those teams, and they tend to request that their children be placed in collaborative classrooms, Smith said.
While some may perceive the bulk of costs for special education are related to “hard costs,” such as furniture, classrooms, etc, the major differences are found in personnel needs, he explained.
“There’s a false premise that to mainstream a special education student into a general classroom requires few costs, specifically personnel, as opposed to segregating them into a single classroom for self-contained services. In actuality, to adequately provide students inclusion services, quite the opposite is true. When done correctly, the collaboration between the general education teacher and special education teacher requires significant time and effort,” Smith said.
With its funding model, the VDOE “perpetuates the segregation of special education students” and that “inherently relegates these students to different and usually lesser educational experiences that are not consistent to those of their peers.” Yet, the VDOE expects students with disabilities to pass traditional SOL reading and math tests and meet the requirements to earn standard diplomas.
RCPS has communicated its concerns to the VDOE, including Dr. Samantha Hollins, assistant superintendent for special education and student services and Christina Berta, assistant superintendent of finance, and was told “the return of funds were not warranted and would not be offered.”
RCPS has also reached out to Senator Ryan McDougle’s office for his advice and support. “They have been very responsive in communicating the funding dilemma to the Virginia Secretary of Education and the Joint Legislative and Review Commission,” reported Smith.
“It is our hope that a resolution will be forthcoming; if not for this budget it may be corrected for future biennium budgets,” he said.
Meanwhile, RCPS hopes it can supplement the lost funding through other categories of the budget and from sources, such as county funds or tapping into the Regional Special Education Reimbursement Account.
What the RCPS won’t do is be pressured to boost its use of self-contained classrooms for the sake of money.
“The self-contained classroom model is not a ‘best practice’ for our children, and I will not consider this option as a solution to this problem…While this model may be recommended in some cases, it is not appropriate for the majority of special education students, and most certainly those attending our school,” said Smith.