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BC Politics

Why Is Government Increasing Funding for Private Special Needs Schools?

Increases renew debate on support for special needs kids in public system.

Katie Hyslop 21 Oct

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee's education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

As next May’s provincial election comes closer, the Education Ministry has been dropping dollars all over the place.

Last spring, the government returned $25 million of the $54 million in administrative cuts districts were forced to make in the last two years. Another $2 million was found to save seven rural schools slated for closure by school districts struggling to balance their budgets.

This summer, it rolled out a new $15-million Student Transportation Fund to keep school buses running and came up with $67 million to ease school crowding in Langley.

For the most part, the money has been met by a mixture of “it’s an election year” grumblings from critics and sighs of relief from districts, parents and students.

But an Oct. 4 announcement of $1 million in additional funding for 15 private Special Education Services or SES schools in B.C. was met with outrage.

“It’s just really morally offensive in our view,” said BC Teachers’ Federation president Glen Hansman.

“To hear that private schools are receiving an increase while public schools are not really does sound like elitism to our group,” Andrea Kennedy, parent and member of B.C. Action for Equitable Access to Education, told the Vancouver Sun earlier this month.

So what’s behind the funding, and the anger?

How are special needs students funded?

B.C. public schools get $8,963 per student in basic funding this year. Districts get additional amounts, from $9,500 to $37,700 for students who fall into three categories of special needs designated by the government — students physically dependent on others for “meeting all major daily needs” like dressing, feeding, and cleaning themselves; those with physical and cognitive disabilities; and students with serious mental health and behavioural problems.

Independent or private schools receive 35 to 50 per cent of the per-student funding public schools receive. But since 2005, they have received the full amount of funding for special needs students.

But per-student special needs funding only applies to children in those three categories of special needs.

At least 30,000 more public school students have special needs. But in 2002, the government eliminated specific special needs funding for students assessed as gifted, with learning disabilities, mild intellectual disabilities or mild mental illnesses. That money was rolled into the general per-student grants.

Parents, teachers and trustees have argued the elimination of targeted funding has meant an erosion of programs and services to support these students, leaving them to fend for themselves. Districts have cut those programs to cover rising unfunded costs like salary increases, Medical Services Plan premiums and BC Hydro increases.

What are Special Education Services schools?

Since 1991, six B.C. private schools have been designated “special education services” (SES) schools. Unlike every other B.C. school where special needs students must be integrated into a regular classroom, these six schools cater to special needs students only.

They received the same special needs funding as public schools, plus an additional $2,000 annually per student.

The schools are:

Children’s Hearing and Speech Centre of BC, for the deaf and hard of hearing;

Kenneth Gordon Maplewood school, catering to “challenges and disorders” like dyslexia and autism;

James Cameron school, for students with learning disabilities;

Glen Eden school, specializing in “complex psychological, neuropsychiatric, socio-emotional and/or developmental difficulties”;

Fraser Academy, for students with language-specific learning disabilities; and

Discovery School, which specializes in students with multiple learning disabilities.

On Oct. 4, Education Minister Mike Bernier announced nine more schools would be eligible for SES designation, and the $2,000 additional funding per student.

These schools are:

All 15 schools are located in Victoria or the Lower Mainland. Combined enrolment last year was more than 900 students.

To receive SES designation, schools must have a teacher-to-student ratio of one to six or lower. The BC Teachers’ Federation puts the average public school teacher-to-student ratio at one to 16.7; the Education Ministry wouldn’t provide a number.

And every student in the school must have an individualized education plan outlining their special need, education goals and required services.

But students in SES schools don’t need a special needs designation, which is why schools like Victoria’s Artemis Place, geared towards at-risk female, trans or gender non-conforming students, is eligible for designation.

Why give private schools more money?

First, special needs enrolment in private schools is going up.

Between 2000 and 2010, 1,500 more special needs students enrolled in private schools, a 250-per-cent increase. Overall enrolment in independent schools has increased by 21,000 students since 2000.

The Federation of Independent Schools Association of BC (FISA) says the increase is at least partially because families believe public schools aren’t meeting their children’s needs.

Second, the nine schools now eligible for designation risk closure without more money, says the private school association. All but three of the 15 SES schools charge tuition, ranging from $6,000 to $23,450 per year. But even with government funding and school fundraising, it’s not enough, says FISA.

“In many cases these schools are offering a 12-month program, because they found the students regressed too much over the summertime,” said Peter Froese, the association’s executive director. Funding doesn’t cover the cost, he said. (About 250 public schools have closed since 2002, though public school enrolment has been dropping while private school enrolment rises.)

If all nine schools are designated they will receive an additional $1 million in annual funding, bringing the total SES funding to $1.88 million. Not enough to solve all their problems, says Froese, but it helps. “This breathes a little life into these programs and gives them some sustainability.”

How does public school special education funding compare?

Like overall public school enrolment, which decreased by 70,000 students since 2001 to 553,378 students, the number of special needs students has dropped by 8,000 students to 58,000 last year.

However, the BCTF estimates the number of students in the three categories eligible for funding has increased by 50 per cent since 2000, for a total of 26,874.

The overall drop in students identified as having special needs reflects the fact that assessments aren’t being done on children with less severe needs because there is no funding. Thousands of other students are on waiting lists for assessment, says Hansman.

But while the number of special needs students eligible for funding has increased, the teachers’ union says there are 24 per cent fewer special education teachers — roughly 1,000 positions — than in 2000. The Education Ministry says it can’t verify that claim, and adds staffing decisions are made by school districts.

But the union places the blame on then-education minister Christy Clark’s 2002 decision to strip teachers’ contracts of set teacher-to-student ratios for specialists like special education teachers. The BCTF argued this move was unconstitutional, and after a win and a loss in B.C. courts is taking the government to the Supreme Court of Canada next month.

The loss of special needs teachers and supports for students also reflects underfunding and the impact of a 2002 law mandating districts balance their budgets or face dismissal, says Hansman. He points to the Coquitlam school district, which in 2013 cut 14 full-time equivalent education assistants, six special education assistants and the director responsible for special needs students to balance its budget.

Some special education teachers have chosen to return to regular classrooms, Hansman adds, because of inconsistent staffing in special education resource programs.

“There is a worry that these very important specialist teacher jobs in special ed and learning assistance domain have become entry-level jobs,” Hansman said, “when really it’s important to make sure that we have people that have classroom experience or have the expertise that is so needed to support those kids.”

How is this impacting kids?

A 2008 external inquiry into special education services in Langley school district concluded government underfunding and the stripped teachers’ contract were the main culprits for waits of up to two years for assessments, no services for students with unfunded special needs and resource teachers with unworkable caseloads as high as 70 students.

“Perhaps the most disturbing finding was the feeling of disillusionment expressed by traditionally optimistic professionals, and the long-term implications for special education programs and services for the children they are intended to help,” the report found.

Last February, grassroots parent group BC Parents of Special Needs Children conducted an online survey asking parents whether they had given up on the public system and put their special needs kids into private schools.

Inspired by media coverage of parents doing just that, the survey only received 236 responses.

Yet it confirmed some long-held beliefs that parents were fleeing the public system: half of respondents had pulled their kids from public school, while another 40 per cent were considering it. Only four per cent weren’t considering the move.

The reasons for leaving included detrimental emotional impacts on their kids because they weren’t receiving adequate supports, children missing out on academic and extra-curricular events because of no supports and schools not following their children’s individual education plans.

The province’s Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, has also spoken out about a lack of supports for special needs students, particularly in districts that rely on “soft” or “isolation rooms” for isolating and sometimes restraining students with special needs when their classroom teachers can’t cope.

While legal in B.C., Turpel-Lafond condemned the practice in a 2014 Vancouver Sun op-ed co-written with Inclusion BC executive director Faith Bodnar, calling on the ministry and districts to provide adequate supports to both special needs students and their classroom teachers. So far the ministry hasn’t made any changes.

The new private school funding and public schools?

The additional $1 million for special education services private school is just a drop in the $5.1-billion public education budget.

But if the ministry were to provide an additional annual $2,000 per special needs student to public schools, as it does to the private schools, the BCTF says it would put an additional $115 million into the system.

“It would definitely be able to put back so many of those specialist teacher positions in our schools,” said Hansman, “and would hopefully provide some continuity from one year to the next.”

In an emailed statement, a Ministry of Education spokesperson said the SES schools receive at least $3,500 less per student from government than public schools.

FISA BC’s Froese doesn’t see the funding the new funding as private vs. public education issue.

“I don’t see it as if you took money from one sector into the public sector you’re going to solve the problem — you’re not,” he said. “You’re providing an education for families that value the particular philosophies these schools represent, and you’re providing public education in the same way.”

A few of the SES schools don’t charge tuition and at least five offer bursaries or discounts for low-income families. But Hansman says the cost and limited number of seats in SES schools are barriers to a better education for special needs students in the public system who can’t get into these schools.

“This isn’t even a ‘should funding be going to private schools’ issue,’” he said. “This is about discrimination, in our view: families having to pay for things that should be freely available to them, and kids not getting the services.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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