Separating special education students from classrooms is wrong and expensive

Johnny Falotico, a teenager from Berkeley County in Ocean Township, has multiple disabilities that inhibit his ability to learn, swallow, and move. Berkeley Central Regional School District, Johnny’s home district, placed him in a classroom in the public high school without appropriate support or services. Johnny’s parents sued the district and won. Berkeley Central Regional now sends Johnny to a private special education school in Eatontown with tuition costs of about $50,000 per year.

As a three-year-old, A.C. (as she’s identified in court documents) had severe speech delays, made no eye contact, rocked back and forth, and exhibited repetitive behavior. Millburn Public Schools in Essex County, her home district, placed her in a school-based integrated preschool with one hour per week of speech therapy and declined to classify A.C. as autistic, a disability that requires far more therapies and services.  A.C.’s parents independently placed their daughter in a private out-of-district special education school that specialized in autism and hired a private consulting firm and a lawyer. Millburn lost the court case, of course —  Administrative Law Judge Caridad F. Rigo castigated the district for negligence — and ended up paying over $500,000 to settle accounts, including back tuition and legal fees. A.C. can stay in her private school at district expense until she’s 21. Tuition at her school is over $100,000 per year.

Welcome to New Jersey, where we win first prize for our inability to strike the proper balance between special education and separate education. Certainly some children require out-of-district placements in private or public special education schools, but no other state in the country segregates students with disabilities at the rate we do. The causes are complex and include habit, infrastructure, and the proclivity of both districts and parents to use the courts as referees.

The result of this culture of segregation is that N.J.’s public school system fails to provide necessary services for children with disabilities within the “least restrictive environment,” typically their home schools, as mandated in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This failure generates enormous costs to local taxpayers, cash-starved school districts, and families.  So last week  New Jersey School Boards Association, after a year-long study, issued a report called “Special Education: A Service, Not a Place.”

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Dr. Gerald J. Vernotica, associate professor at Montclair State University, former assistant commissioner of education, and NJSBA Task Force chair, said, “[p]ublic 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, it is part of the range of services public schools provide to children, not a separate place to put them.”

First a few facts, courtesy of NJSBA’s report:

1) While N.J. public school enrollment increased by 1 percent between 2008 and 2012, special education classification increased by 4.9 percent.

2) In 2007, the last time NJSBA calculated special education costs, N.J. paid $3.3 billion per year, mostly for personnel and tuition to out-of-district, segregated schools. Fifty-seven percent of that $3.3 billion comes from local property taxes. The highest rates of out-of-district placements are in our wealthiest districts (where parents have the resources to advocate and sue) and our poorest districts (where the state picks up almost the whole tab).

3) During 2008-2012, special education costs increased 8 percent while general education costs increased 4 percent. Special education now comprises over one-fifth of total K-12 expenditures.

4) Of the 202,850 schoolchildren classified as eligible for special education services, over half of them spend less than 80 percent of their time in general education classes and over 15,000 attend separate public and private special education schools. About half of these children are categorized as autistic or multiply-disabled, the most high-cost classifications. (There are 11 eligibility categories such as deaf/blindness, orthopedic impairments, emotional disabilities, speech and language disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, etc.)

NJSBA suggests a number of remedies to our costly and unnecessarily-segregated special education system: improved early intervention; shared services; regionalizing Child Study Teams (a group of specialists who, with parental input, make decisions regarding services and placement); better paperwork to maximize federal Medicaid reimbursements; changes to state law that would place the burden of proof on parents, not districts.

That’s all fine (although the last proposal has raised some eyebrows among special needs advocates). NJSBA has succinctly identified the problem: our culture of out-sourcing special education services to separate schools is financially unsustainable, illegal, and, arguably, unethical. But it’s going to take more than a list of tangential recommendations to provide the necessary assurances and supports to keep Johnny’s and A.C. in their community schools.



Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.



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