For schools across New Hampshire, special education is a growing need and a growing cost. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Manchester, the state’s largest district, where special ed expenditures have nearly tripled in the last twenty years.
The state and federal governments cover some of this cost, but gaps in funding are making it harder for Manchester to meet students’ needs.
A Family's Fight for Special Ed
Marc and Anna Pantazis fear these funding struggles will make it harder for their 3rd grade child, Parker, to get services.
Parker recently got a diagnosis of ADHD, and he’s having a hard time keeping up in class.
“They’re not slowing down, waiting for the kid who’s just like, ‘I just got my pencil. I know I lost it twice!' ” says Anna. “Our kid was the kid who never had his pencil.”
But it’s more than just pencils. Parker is struggling to complete assignments and write and read full sentences. He says he's constantly distracted in class.
“One thing I really wish I could do is sit by myself for the rest of the school year, so no one else would talk to me,” he says. “Thank God some of my friends go, ‘Parker, stop talking!’ And I love that help from them.”
Earlier this year, Parkers’ parents started to brainstorm what else might help him. They learned that kids with ADHD do better when the teacher has a small microphone that makes their voice easier to hear. When the Pantazis asked for one, Parker’s school had to borrow it from another school across town. And while it helped, they worry about when the teacher has to give it back.
The Pantazis believe this would get cleared up with a more formal disability diagnosis. And to get this, they're demanding an array of tests - paid for by the district - to figure out all of Parker’s needs.
“You’re hoping that when they look at these tests that they’re done well and that they really do tell you where your kid is at,” says Marc. “In other words, please, if my kid has a reading disability, don’t just tell me it’s ADHD.”
Once the test results are in, the Pantazis hope to get Parker an individualized educational plan, or IEP. This would be a game changer. The school would spell out everything it legally has to provide, like reading specialists and a case manager.
This is the process thousands of families across New Hampshire go through - frequent meetings, calls, evaluations - just to get an IEP. But when that's over, it creates a big new challenge: How the district will pay for those services.
A 'Quasi-Funded' Mandate: The Struggle Over How to Fund IEPs
Many Manchester parents say getting an IEP is so difficult because the school district doesn’t want to pay for it. The district declined an interview with NHPR, but school board member Ross Terrio came to the district’s defense.
He says the root problem of all this is a “quasi-funded” mandate. Federal civil rights laws require schools to provide services to IEP students in regular classrooms, with their general education peers, whenever possible, and to give them tools there to succeed.
But these laws came with a promise to school districts: that the government would cover up to 40 percent of special ed costs. Terrio says that’s not happening.
“The federal government is giving us about 14 cents on the dollar,” Terrio says. “State government brings it up another $0.09 to $0.23 or so. We’re only getting about half of what we were promised.”
The Manchester School District did not respond to a request for details on these numbers.
The federal government’s unfulfilled promise has million-dollar consequences for school districts. Manchester spends an average of about $12,000 per student. But if a student’s IEP calls for a paraprofessional to provide individual support, that could cost another $40,000. And on top of that, the student might also require physical and occupational therapy.
Under the current adequacy formula New Hampshire uses to help fund special education, this student will probably just get an extra $1,956 from the state. This is a fraction of what it actually costs the district to teach that student.
The state only starts to kick in more once a student requires services that exceed around $55,000. And this aid has decreased steadily since 2008, leaving local taxpayers to pick up the tab.
"It's really not fair," Terrio says. "I really believe the state needs to step up and do more."
This downshifting of costs to districts doesn’t change the legal reality: IEP students have the right to special education services. Terrio says he’s grateful for this; it gave his daughter, who has Down Syndrome, the attention in school she deserved.
But when it comes to the costs to schools, “you’re kind of in a bind,” he says.
Manchester’s bind is made worse by its low property values and by the city’s tax cap, which makes raising money locally even harder. The end result is tight school budgets, low wages for paraprofessionals, and chronically unfilled positions for dozens of staff.
Keeping Up With Growing Needs
During lunch at the city's McLaughlin Middle School, I meet up with Maxine Mosley. She’s a guidance counselor there and works with a lot of students with IEPs.
She says not having enough paraprofessionals in a classroom is wreaking havoc. Take a kid with emotional behavioral disabilities, who bolts out of the classroom when he gets upset. Teachers call these kids “runners.”
“When you have a runner, and you don’t have a one-on-one on them, you’re spending your with time with eyes on that child, your physical proximity near that child, but you have a lot of other kids in your room,” Mosley explains. “So where’s the focus of the teacher? It needs to be on safety first, instruction second.”
Mosley has done this work for 40 years. And in the last decade she’s noticed more runners and more kids with extreme, complex needs that require expensive services.
“What we are seeing for the needs of children has changed dramatically," she says. "A lot more aggression; a lot more poverty; a lot more trauma. And we know that trauma can change how the brain functions.”
This is a trend other districts are noting too. And where there’s trauma at home - addiction, violence, abuse - it’s hard to figure out the root cause of a student’s troubles in school.
"It’s the chicken and the egg - are we talking about special ed or are we talking about trauma, are we talking about both?” Mosley says.
Figuring that out is even trickier with the hundreds of students in Manchester who have recently moved here from other countries, many as refugees. Mosley suspects many of them would qualify for special education if they could do evaluations in their native language.
This is something Anna Pantazis thinks about often. She says she can barely understand some of the language school staff use about Parker - terms like “executive functioning” and “cognitive sensory disorder” - and she can’t imagine what it’s like for non-English speakers with complex needs to navigate this world.
“There’s part of me who knows that there’s kids who are way worse than my kid. And they’re probably not getting the services they need,” she says. “But Mark and I are fighting for it. And I do feel guilty about that. I know that not every kid is going to have an advocate to push.”
If you put the Pantazis in a room with Mosley and Terrio, they might not agree on much. But they all say that while more special ed funding from the state wouldn’t be a cure-all for Manchester, it would be a big help for hundreds of kids here.