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Press coverage of special education costs during a budget crisis

Posted Jan 20 2011 12:00am

Let’s list a few obvious facts: California is in the midst of a budget crisis. Governor Brown just took office and is faced with a massive deficit. Much of the state’s budget is educational. Some of that budget is special education.

There needs to be a real discussion of how to provide an appropriate education for special needs kids in this time. Unfortunately, news stories tend to give a very mixed message—sometimes good, but often using very loaded language. The loaded language does not help anyone, least of all the students.

Here is an article in the Contra Costa times: Special-education students heading back to campuses . It discusses the trend amongst schools to pull special needs kids out of private placements and into the district’s own placements. The reason for this shift:

“In the past, it was easier to send kids away to nonpublic schools,” said a state Senate Education Committee consultant who spoke anonymously because she did not have authorization from the legislators she works with. “Now, part of the move to bring them back to public schools is money.”

Private placements can cost a lot. No one denies it. But the focus needs to start with what is appropriate for the individual student in question. That’s the law. Plus, we need to consider what is really cost-effective for the school within the constraints of an appropriate education. Of course schools can save money when disabled children are in cheaper placements. To take a completely ridiculous stance, we could save money by just denying them the right to any education. We don’t. Why? Because it isn’t the right thing to do. It impinges on the rights of the children.

The story from Contra Costa has an early paragraph that bugs me for a different reason, though. I need to get past this. At a time when there is a big movement to reduce or eliminate seclusions and restraints, private placements are painted as a way around the restrictions placed on public schools:

Private special-education schools train employees to respond to crises, and allow staff members to seclude and physically restrain students when necessary.

One Tobinworld 10th-grader whose mother did not give permission for her to be identified said that with physical restraint, “one time is all it takes.”

She credits the shock of being pinned facedown during an emotional outburst this year with helping her learn to control her temper.

For good behavior, Tobinworld students earn a steady stream of “toys, goodies and yummies,” such as the opportunity to play video games or take trips to the school’s in-house Baskin-Robbins ice-cream parlor. Several days of meeting behavioral goals mean bigger rewards, such as jewelry and electronics. Perfect attendance earns cash.

Officials take the approach that extraordinary measures, such as using junk food as a reward, are necessary to handle extraordinary problems.

Private schools shouldn’t be a means around a regulation. They should be a means to provide for the individual’s unique needs.

On the other side of the coin is this quote:

“Every little thing that we ask for in a private school, it’s an extra charge,” said Pittsburg school district special-education director Debra Daly, who oversaw the addition of three classes for disabled students this year. “In the district, (the specialists) are already on staff.”

Special-education students often need the help of psychiatrists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and other professionals. At private schools, these extras can double the base tuition.

See what I mean by loaded language? “Every little thing” is an extra charge. In the district, the specialists are already on staff, where”little things” like speech therapy and occupational therapy are available on staff. These are hardly “little things”.

Also, it is worth stressing that Speech and Occupational therapy are not generic. I have tons and tons of respect for special educators. Speech therapists are awesome people, wherever they are. But, there are times when the “speech therapist” is just too general for the need. A child with apraxia, for example. This is a child who needs very specialized attention. It isn’t fair to the therapist and it isn’t fair to the student to place such a child with someone who is not highly experienced with exactly this concern. Dyslexia is another area where a generalized special education program may not meet the needs of the individual.

We recognize in medicine that a general practitioner can’t do everything. This takes nothing away from the doctor, but a child who needs a neurologist isn’t served appropriately by a general pediatrician. This is true also for speech and occupational therapists. This is also true for schools in general.

Private schools often fill a niche. In order to provide the appropriate education for a given student, a school district might actually have to pay more than the private school. Why? Because they don’t have the specialists and the experience with that child’s individual needs. A district may not have enough children with those needs to warrant a program which addresses the issues involved. It makes no sense to mix children with very different needs into a classroom, and it makes no sense for a district to create a special program for 1 or 2 children with those needs. A private placement can be both the appropriate and the cost-effective approach for some children.

Moving on in the story:

To justify these costs, private-school administrators point to their low teacher-student ratio, lavish rewards and free school supplies, along with numerous on-site specialists who often earn higher pay than their counterparts on district payrolls. Because of the population they serve, these schools also tend to incur high property replacement and workers’ compensation costs.

I would like to see the school with the “lavish” rewards. “Lavish” isn’t something I’ve seen in any placement, be it public or private. As to “on-site” specialists, I have seen private placements that bring in specialists on contract. Sure, the cost per hour might appear high, but the school isn’t paying all of the overhead for the therapist, either. In the end, this keeps overall costs lower.

The story goes on with a detail about funding that was new to me:

State legislators tried to rein in costs in 1997 when they overhauled special-education funding. Before the change, districts were reimbursed from 70 to 100 percent of the cost of the independent schools, a fiscal incentive that lawmakers feared was influencing placement decisions.

By ending the reimbursements for most students and folding all special-education funding into a block grant, lawmakers hoped to motivate districts to keep as many students in their own programs as possible.

Again, funding issues and policy issues are a driving factor. And, yet, stories tend to focus on the costs of special ed students.

Districts spent $10 billion to teach the state’s special-education students in 2009, roughly double what they spent five years earlier, according to an analysis by School Services of California.

The rising costs are attributable in part to changes in the state’s special-education population, which is skewing toward more severe disabilities.

In Contra Costa, for example, the number of special-education students has remained constant over the past decade, but the percentage of students with relatively manageable “specific” learning disabilities such as dyslexia has fallen.

Autistic and emotionally disturbed students, on the other hand, now make up 12.5 percent of the total, up from 5.5 percent a decade ago.

I wonder how many people misread that. I did at first. I wondered how in the heck Contra Costa county could have “12.5% of the total” with autism or emotional disturbance labels. Of course the answer is that they are talking about 12.5% of the total of special education students. They don’t tell us if the additional autistic or emotionally disturbed students are taking the more expensive private placements.

The implication, at least as I read it, from this story is that there is a shift of students from specific learning disability (SLD) to autism and emotional disturbance. Is this a real shift, i.e. students who would have been labeled SLD now being labeled autistic or emotionally disturbed? While there is much discussion of diagnostic shifts in autism, I have been skeptical of the idea that there is a shift from SLD to autism.

That said, let’s say there has been this shift. There are students today with autism and emotional disturbance labels who previously had SLD labels. One big question left unasked—would those students have been appropriately served under the SLD label?

Also, not every kid with an autism or emotional disturbance label gets an expensive placement. Let’s assume SLD kids are being relabeled as autistic or emotional disturbed. Wouldn’t it be likely that these kids would be on those requiring less intensive special education supports?

The question of the SLD population dropping while the autism rates have climbed has come up a few times before. What I have found in looking at the special ed numbers is that SLD is largely a label for older children. As the population of SLD children has dropped, it is largely from older children as well. On the other hand, the autism population is increasing largely in younger children.

In other words, a shift from SLD—>autism doesn’t make sense.

Consider Contra Costa county. In 2004-05, the peak age for the SLD population was age 15, with 1,094 students. In 2010, the number of SLD students age 15 dropped to 835.

Now look at the autism population. In 2004-05, the autism population was 37. This doubled to 73 by 2009-10. Yep, doubled. BUT, this is only an increase of 36 students.

Autism went up by 36 kids. SLD went down by 354.

Emotional disturbance population was flat at 94 to 95.

(in checking these facts and others, I am reminded of the fact that general education numbers are much easier to compare on the CDE’s dataquest website than special ed numbers)

Moving on—another loaded phrase in the story:

Experts also note that publicly financed private education and therapy have become sought-after benefits as more parents learn about their rights to extra services for disabled children.

“extra services”. How about “appropriate services”?

But later we get to the real message. It isn’t so much special education costs rising as funding dropping:

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, vetoed funding for private mental health services for special-education students in the fall. The Mt. Diablo school district, which enhanced its classes for emotionally disturbed students in 2009, estimates that the cut will leave it on the hook for $1 million in private-school costs through the remainder of the school year.

Special-education costs represent a growing threat to schools’ diminishing general education funds, administrators say

We can not diminish the importance of that. Funding is dropping. We need to see how everyone can help out to solve the budget crisis. But we need to do it with accurate information, uncolored by creative language.

Then the story frames the district placements as “best for the students”

School administrators insist that the shift to in-house programs is what’s best for students, as well as district balance sheets.

Special-education children participating in public programs benefit from attending school with siblings and neighborhood friends and from a shorter commute.

“Imagine a kid who has disabilities anyway,” Olson said, “and then you put them on a bus for two hours a day?”

And people on both sides of the issue acknowledge that public schools hold their students to higher academic standards.

That last sentence does not ring true to me. Most parents would eagerly place their child in a placement that has the higher academic standards—that are consistent with the child’s abilities—and the appropriate means to achieve those standards.

The author goes on to give a counterexample to the above assertion that the district placements are better:

“Federal law is idealistic in that it puts pressure on schools to provide the least-restrictive environment,” said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley education and public policy professor. “Now, you have fiscal pressure to mainstream students, but you go into classrooms and see that this may do the child with severe disabilities harm, or it may flatten out the learning curve for other kids.”

We do need to have the discussion of school finances in a time of budget cuts. But we need this to be an honest discussion about the facts. Budgets are being cut. They are being cut because tax revenues are down. Special ed students aren’t the ones who are refusing extra taxes. All students have the right to an appropriate education. All students. Infringe on that right for the minority and it doesn’t bode well for the majority. We need to step up to the plate and make our commitment to education—education for all—a reality. That’s how we get past this problem. Not by singling out special needs children.

  1. passionlessDrone:
    Hi Sullivan - I appreciate your attention to detail here. Ultimately I believe that this won't work out for kids like ours, at least not the way I'd like it to. Very nicely written post. - pD

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