PORTLAND (AP) – Maine’s special education system, now among the nation’s most costly, will grow even more expensive if voters approve an education funding proposal intended to provide property-tax relief, state officials say.

Maine spends 17 percent of its education money on programs directed at children with physical, emotional and learning disabilities; the comparable figure nationwide is 13 percent.

State officials, along with some education and tax experts, predict a rapid rise in special education spending if voters approve Question 1A on the Nov. 4 referendum ballot.

They say the measure, which requires the state to pay 100 percent of the cost of special education, will encourage school districts to boost enrollment in those programs.

But supporters of 1A say the measure would force the state to establish uniform guidelines for special education, which is now provided unevenly from district to district. Special education rates among Maine school districts vary from 6 percent to 36 percent.

“It’s bad enough we have to pay for the mandate,” said Dana Lee, who is leading the political action committee that is pushing Question 1A. “The state doesn’t help us understand the mandate.”

The special education provision in Question 1A has received little attention during the campaign, but it’s a huge part of the proposal. Forty percent of the new state education money would go to special education, and the percentage would grow to more than half by the end of the decade, state education officials say.

The competing ballot measure, Question 1B, does not address special education at all.

Nearly 25 years ago, Congress passed legislation that guarantees a free and individually planned education for millions of school-age children with disabilities. Moreover, it says that children as much as possible should be in classrooms rather than institutions.

When Congress passed the law, its intent was to cover 40 percent of the cost.

While local and state budgets have been forced to absorb the federal government’s mandate, the costs for special education continue to rise.

Over the last 10 years, special education spending in Maine has increased by more than 100 percent. While regular education enrollments have fallen by 3 percent, enrollment in special education has jumped 28 percent.

In Maine last year, $268 million was spent on special education. Local school districts picked up 35.6 percent of the cost, the state 52.6 percent, and the federal government less than 12 percent.

Question 1A requires the state to boost its education funding to 55 percent; it is now about 43 percent. The additional special education funds would be included within that 55 percent. To raise that money, the Legislature would have to increase state taxes, institute new taxes, or cut existing programs.

Question 1B, the competing measure that the Legislature and Gov. John Baldacci put on the ballot, also boosts state education spending to 55 percent – but it does it so slowly that it won’t reach 55 percent until the end of the decade. Question 1C is “none of the above.”

AP-ES-10-27-03 0901EST

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