Special education has proven to be one of the most vexing issues facing Maine school districts. Through the last two decades, as the field of special education has grown more sophisticated and the level of knowledge on the subject has improved significantly, districts have been better able to identify students with special needs.

From 1993-2002, for example, as general student enrollment in Maine declined by 3.1 percent, special education enrollment grew by 26.1 percent, according to the Maine Education Policy Research Institute. That is a staggering increase, even when considering that some over-identification may have occurred in that time.

The improvement of special education services is certainly something Maine can be proud of, as districts strive to serve all students, regardless of needs. But such services require significant resources, no small consideration at a time when schools are facing harsh budget cuts.

According to the Capitol News Services, the total instructional cost of special education programs in 2007-2008 was more than $300 million for about 18,000 students in the programs, compared to $830.8 million for about 174,000 students in regular programs. Between 1996 and 2006, the Department of Education reported, special education costs rose 6.4 percent annually, compared to a 3.7 percent annual growth rate for other education expenses.

It is clearly a situation that demands new ideas, and a break from doing things as they have always been done.

Enter the Sebago Education Alliance, a program established in 2004 to pool the resources of local school districts, including School Administrative District 6 (Bonny Eagle), Westbrook, Gorham, Scarborough and Regional School Unit 14 (Windham-Raymond).

Five years ago, in response to the increasing demands of special education, the alliance started its Day Treatment Program with the aim of lowering special education costs while providing a better learning environment for students with special needs. Housed at the former Frank Jewett School in Buxton, the program now serves about 36 students whose home districts do not have the facilities to handle the students’ emotional and behavioral needs.

Prior to the program, students facing these kinds of challenges had to go to private institutions, sometimes as far as an hour away, at a cost of as much as $100,000 per student per year. The alliance offers classes much closer to home, and for much less money. The average tuition, director Jennifer Searway said, is about $32,900, saving school districts anywhere from $25,000-$60,000 per student annually.

The work being done in the Day Treatment Program can also help the students overcome their issues enough so that they no longer need off-site special education at all, and can return to their home school districts. That outcome is far better for the students, and far less costly for the district.

“Our motivation is to transition kids here to a less restrictive environment,” Searway said.

It is these kinds of creative solutions, spread across borders and involving multiple districts, that will help save scarce funds and allow for the improvement of education in Maine, even in times of financial distress. As districts enter what is sure to be another difficult budget season, officials should look to programs like the Sebago Education Alliance for inspiration, and consider how they too can partner with their neighboring school departments.

Ben Bragdon is the managing editor at Current Publishing. He can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter.

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