CCJEF v. Rell: Defense Begins Its Case

Following the Plaintiff’s resting of their case-in-chief in CCJEF v. Rell, it is now the Defense’s turn.  The first witness called by the Defense was Dr. Reschly, Professor of Education and Psychology, at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Reschly chaired the nation’s top ranked Department of Special Education from 1998-2006 and previously served as the Distinguished Professor and Director of the School Psychology Program at Iowa State University.

Dr. Reschly testified that Connecticut has a favorable record implementing the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), and has sufficient resources for districts to do so.  He described how Connecticut’s record is particularly favorable compared to other states throughout the Northeast.  Judge Moukawsher, however, noted that saying Connecticut’s record is favorable as compared to other states is distinct from saying that Connecticut is adequately meeting the needs of special education students. For one, the other states may be doing a “disastrous” job.  Judge Moukawsher also stressed the distinction between the state meeting the statutory requirements to provide special education funding and the state actually meeting the needs of special education students.

In response, Dr. Reschly agreed that these are not the same but maintained that they are “closely related.” It is his belief that the resources provided to the students in Connecticut are sufficient to provide a free and appropriate public education (“FAPE”) to students in Connecticut.  Judge Moukawsher again countered that there is a distinction between saying that resources are sufficient to provide a FAPE to special education students, and saying that all students are getting a FAPE.  Dr. Reschly conceded that he could not say with confidence that all special education students in Connecticut are getting a FAPE, or that they have all their needs met.

From there the testimony turned to educational funding methods.  Connecticut uses a census-based spending model which generates a fixed dollar amount per total enrollment.  Total enrollment is determined by reviewing a district’s average daily attendance and is used to determine the number of special education students in the district.  A multiplier (such as 2.1) is then applied to that number, and the result is the total amount of special education dollars to be allocated to that district. The multiplier represents the amount of money it will cost to educate a special education student as opposed to a regular education student. For example, a multiplier of 2.1 would mean that the cost to educate a special education student is 2.1 times more than the cost to educate a general education student. The criticism of the census-based approach, which Dr. Reschly has heard in Connecticut and nationally, is that special education funding is “crowding out” general education funding. 

As Dr. Reschly pointed out though, the strength of Connecticut’s funding method is in giving a great deal of flexibility to local educators. Other states use a combined funding in which general and special education funding is combined into one lump sum paid out to the district.  Combined funding models give rise to competition between general and special education funds.  The result is that funds supposedly for special education may be used for general purposes and these students may get left behind.

Finally, Dr. Reschly spoke about disability identification rates in great detail.  His research has examined whether there is any link between wealth and disability rates.  Autism rates were of particular interest, as the cost to educate autistic students is among the highest in all of special education.  The level of autism identification statewide in CT is 1.3%, but even among the least wealthy districts there is a great deal of variability in autism rates (such that some of the poor districts have rates close to zero, while others are higher than the state average).  The same was true when other disabilities were examined.  The takeaway is that there seems to be no causal link between wealth, or lack thereof, and disability prevalence.  For a related discussion regarding a possible link between race and disability identification rates, please see this article from the New Haven Register.

The Defense’s case continues throughout the next few weeks. The Commission will continue to provide coverage through to the closing arguments.