The Record has a two-part piece (here and here) on a new trend among NJ school districts: serving students with disabilities within the public system instead of paying tuition to private special education schools.
Parents worry that districts “are motivated primarily by money and cannot provide the small class sizes, low student-teacher ratios and individualized attention by trained staff offered at out-of-district placements.” But districts “deny their prime impetus was cost” and “tout the benefits of keeping students in their hometowns,” integrated with the larger community.
One child’s placement at an out-of-district special education school can cost over $100,000 a year, particularly for high-cost disabilities like autism. In-district placements tend to be considerably cheaper. The article quotes a spokesperson from Wayne Public Schools who says that, on average, “out-of-district placements generally cost around $55,000, compared with $15,000 to $19,000 in-house. The cost for a mainstream student is around $11,000 a year.”
Also note that this analysis by The Record mostly sticks to school districts with high degrees of wealth; of the 14 districts included in the article, all but three of them cluster at the top end of the DOE’s socio-economic rankings, or DFG’s.
In fact, the new study (released last week; see here for details) prepared for the DOE by Augenblick Palaich and Associates (APA) includes some interesting demographic information on the inequities within NJ’s provision of special education services. These disparities include, apropos of The Record piece, the rate at which students receive mandated services as “attending students,” i.e., they attend school within the home district, or as “resident students,” i.e., they reside within district boundaries but receive services in out-of-district placements.
Here’s what jumped out at me from the APA report:
- “Looking at the statewide DFG breakdowns for both years shows that the percentage of resident special education students was highest in the poorest districts and decreased as the districts become wealthier.” So poorer districts invest less in in-district programming and send more kids to out-of-district placements, right in line with the Record article.
- One of the ways the State classifies kids with special needs is the percentage of time they spend in the classroom, as opposed to resource rooms or one-on-one instruction. Federal law (I.D.E.A.) mandates that students with disabilities be served in “the least restrictive environment,” so the desideratum here is the category “80% in the classroom.” According to the APA report, the kids in poor districts who don’t get sent out-of-district spend less time in the classroom than attending students in rich districts.
- While classification rates for disabilities are relatively constant across socio-economic strata, autism rates correlate with community wealth. From the report: “statewide averages for Autism were 0.7 percent in 2008-09 and 0.8 percent in 2009-10. The percentages for the DFG groups show the lowest figures in the A/B DFG group and in the districts with no DFG designation. The percentages grow from the A/B group up through the I/J DFG group. This trend exists in both years.”
- In fact, the data from the APA report (page 32) shows that districts with a DFG of A or B (the poorest) classify students with autism at a rate of .5%. Districts with DFG’s of I and J (the richest) classify students with autism at a rate of 1.0%, double the rate of poor districts.
- The classification of “multiply disabled,” however, is more popular in poor districts than rich districts: “DFG groups A/B and C-D/D-E along with the non DFG districts had higher Multiply Disabled percentages in both years than the state average. The I/J DFG group had lower percentages in each year. Similarly, the I/J group had lower percentages of Specific Learning Disability percentages in both years.”
Then there’s this:
- The private day program figures grew from 3.1 percent in the A/B group to 5.4 percent in the I/J DFG group in 2008-09 and 2.4 percent to 5.5 percent in 2009-10.
There are a variety of special education schools in NJ, but they can be generally divided into Special Services Districts, which are county-run schools, and private special education schools. (ASAH is a great resource for the latter.) According to APA, wealthy districts are far more likely to send their kids with disabilities to privately-run special ed schools.
APA’s study, which was commissioned to examine the census-based model of NJ’s new school funding formula on special education, raises many questions. Why is the classification of autism, a disability blind to socio-economic differences, more prevalent in richer districts? Is there some cache to the label that “multiply-disabled” lacks? Do wealthy parents (or the lawyers and special education advocates that they can afford) believe that an autism diagnosis leads to better educational services? Do private special ed schools cater more to wealthy families and poorer kids with disabilities go to county-run schools?