AUGUSTA – Mainers will continue to see property taxes increase as the result of rising special education costs, state and local officials said Tuesday after the defeat of a plan to fund the program at levels first promised in 1975. A House-Senate conference committee rejected an amendment to assure additional funds for special education would be phased in over the next six years.
“I am discouraged, very discouraged,” said Geoff Herman of the Maine Municipal Association. “We figure property taxes are 15 percent higher than they would otherwise be because Congress has not seen fit to fund this program at the level they promised.”
When Congress mandated that schools provide programs for disabled students, it also promised to fund 40 percent of the cost. That promise never has been kept and in Maine the federal funds have barely paid for a quarter of that amount.
The Maine Municipal Association estimated that meeting the 40 percent level would mean an additional $70 million a year for state schools.
“I am really disappointed that we were unable to get full funding for special education,” said Sen. Susan Collins. “This proposal would have meant almost $550 million in additional education dollars for Maine schools over the next ten years. Despite this major setback, I will continue to fight for full funding of special education.”
As a member of the House-Senate conference committee, Collins co-sponsored a proposal to phase in funds to fulfill the federal promise over six years. It would have cost an additional $2.5 billion a year for each of the six years.
“We did get additional funding this year,” she said, “but certainly not enough.”
The measure does provide for an additional $1 billion for special education in the current federal budget year, which began Oct. 1.
“That may sound like a lot of money,” said Maine Education Department Spokesman Yellow Light Breen, “but by the time that trickles down to local communities, it will be a very small increase.”
Breen said while the state is appreciative of efforts to increase funding by members of the state’s congressional delegation, the failure of the measure means higher property taxes and difficult decisions for local school boards.
“This is an issue that has ripped apart communities,” Herman said, “and now that will continue.”
The costs of special education are growing across Maine and the nation. There are more students classified as “special needs” children in the United States than ever before, up to 6.2 million last year from 4 million in 1975. Some communities in Maine have seen significant property tax increases from special education expenses. The cost of educating just one child can be tens of thousands of dollars.
According to the Families and Advocates Partnership for Education, a Minneapolis-based group, increased diagnoses of children with learning disabilities, such as attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, have contributed to the increase, along with better prenatal care that has resulted in longer lives for children who once might not have survived birth.
The effort to increase special education funding has been bipartisan and all four members of the state’s congressional delegation have pledged to seek funding at the 40 percent level next year.