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Reforming funding for school-based special education - at the point of a gun

Posted Aug 04 2009 6:22pm
Nearly three years ago I offered to work for NYS for free to help tackle the problems of Medicaid fraud for special education services (see The system needs reform badly - and although I never expected to be asked to serve I was actually quite sincere in my concern and desire to effect some improvement in the system.

As I predicted back then, there would eventually come a day of reckoning to pay for the fraud and abuse - and it seems that we are at that day. In today's Albany Times Union, reporter James M. Odato informs us that the New York State Education Department is withholding Medicaid payments to school districts in accordance with a settlement agreement that has NY State paying out hundreds of millions of dollars back to the federal government.

Also as predicted, this leaves school districts in quite a pickle - because they are still mandated to provide these services by law - and now the burden for payment may fall to local districts - which equates to higher taxes for all.

I have always viewed opportunities and threats the same - both require action. I think that this particular situation provides an opportunity for districts to begin looking at their models of service provision and see how to provide services more efficiently. That includes setting appropriate entrance and exit criteria for related services, adopting evidence-based or RTI-type models for educational intervention, and improving team building to ensure that services are reinforced in a transdisciplinary way throughout the curriculum. All of these strategies would help improve the efficiency and also the quality of special education services.

Professionals also have new opportunities to improve focus on school-home carryover. Parent involvement is critical for positive educational outcomes and may be the largest underutilized resource in the special education equation.

Because I am inherently cynical I understand fully how someone might think that I am speaking code for decreasing related services and abdicating responsibility to parents - but I am not. I am talking about an open dialogue about educational best practices and establishing responsible and defensible criteria points for intervention. We have had too many years of poor oversight, lack of accountability, and variable interpretation of special education regulations.

Reform is hard but reform can be good when it is done correctly. Reform should not be driven by some perceived benefit of political expediency or in satisfaction of legal settlements. Our special education system and its funding mechanism is broken and now we have a real chance to improve.

Will we make the most of this opportunity?
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