As a former special education teacher, one belief guided all of my work – that every child can learn. That conviction served as an important bridge as I interacted with students and parents. I was also fortunate to have the pleasure of working with a team of skillful and compassionate professionals – my colleagues on the child study team, in the school psychologist’s office and in the principal’s office. They were all incredibly dedicated and provided a great support system for the teachers. Together, I believe we all provided a first-rate education for these exceptional children.

Special education has remained close to my heart, and I have always felt a unique responsibility to help children with disabilities realize their potential. But even the most ardent supporters of special education have to acknowledge that the cost of the programs and services is presenting long-term challenges to public schools – challenges that often divide our school communities into general education and special education factions.

To identify ways to control cost, yet preserve the quality of special education, NJSBA created the Special Education Task Force in January 2013. The task force has been led through an exhaustive study of trends in special education programming, funding, and effective practices by Dr. Gerald J. Vernotica, an associate professor at Montclair State University and a former assistant commissioner of education. The group consists of local school board members and administrators, who have a sincere commitment to special education. They spent over a year, consulting with more than 25 experts in special education and surveying the literature on the delivery and financing of special education services, with a focus on academic achievement.

This month, the task force concluded its work, delivering a final 120-page report that includes recommendations for strategies to improve delivery of services and control costs. It goes beyond a list of recommended “how-to’s” and takes a stand on how we should perceive special education within our schools. Public education should not be viewed as two separate systems – general education and special education – but rather as one continuum of instruction, programs, interventions, and services that respond to individual student needs.

In other words, as experts and advocates advised the task force, special education is a service provided to children, not a separate place to put them.  And that, in fact, is the title of the final task force report, “Special Education: A Service, Not a Place.”

This edition of School Leader features a summary of that report that begins on page 24. The entire report is available on the NJSBA website.

The report provides school districts with specific strategies that can help them contain some of the rising costs of special education. It also makes comprehensive recommendations for statutory and regulatory changes at the state, county, and federal level.

But most important, the report’s comprehensive overview and policy recommendations on how we can best provide and fund special education services should serve as a starting point for discussion and a blueprint for action. I urge you to read it.