350 NJ School Board Members Miss DeadlineJanuary 4, 2012
NJ’s Urban Hope Act Divides ELC and NJEAJanuary 5, 2012
Earlier this week I commented on Dr. Bruce Baker’s description of New Jersey’s historical preference for the “extreme segregation” of poor minority kids into chronically failing school districts. According to Dr. Baker, we’d rather pay sky-high school taxes than compromise hallowed district boundaries.
New Jersey also chooses to segregate another cohort of children: those with disabilities. In all fairness, there’s historical reasons for our exclusionary habits. In 1975, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, the federal government passed legislation mandating that local school districts must educate children with special needs. (That legislation is known as I.D.E.A., or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.) But NJ was way ahead of the curve: our State Legislature enacted a law way back in 1911 requiring public schools to offer programs for handicapped children, and those programs were originally conceived as taking place outside of traditional classrooms.
(For a great overview of this issue see New Jersey School Board Association’s 2007 report, “Financing Special Education in NJ.”)
This original conception of the best way to education special needs kids spurred the growth of NJ’s industry of private special education schools, which currently number about 200. (ASAH, a non-profit that represents these schools, is a great resource.) Also, the NJ State DOE created Special Services School Districts, one per county, which continue to provide programming (academics, plus all necessary therapies) for kids with disabilities.
Finally, this historical precedent of segregation was buffeted by NJ’s educational infrastructure. With 591 separate school districts, some tiny, it can be an impossible task to assemble a suitable cohort of kids with similar disabilities to justify a classroom. Sometimes it’s just easier and more cost-effective to send those kids to out-of-district placements. And some children, especially those with more severe disabilities, are most suitably educated in restricted settings.
Our progressive and well-intended history, however, runs afoul of a different conception regarding the needs of children with disabilities as articulated in I.D.E.A. From NJSBA’s 2007 report:
The U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Programs cited New Jersey for having the highest proportion of students with disabilities in separate settings (both public and private). New Jersey also has the fourth highest classification rate in the nation. In response to the federal agency’s concern about New Jersey’s progress toward educating special education students in the least restrictive environment, the state changed its funding formula in 1996 to one designed to provide the same aid regardless of the setting in which the services were delivered. In spite of this alteration in funding, there has been no change in the proportion of students in separate settings nor has there been any appreciable change in the classification rate.
In other words, NJ’s has been cited for unduly segregated children with disabilities from typically-developing children. This is a violation of Federal law.
We’ve made some progress over the last few years. According to the most recent NJ DOE data, in 2010 NJ’s local school districts sent 14,615 kids to public and private out-of-district placements, out of a total disabled population of 199,205 kids. That’s better than 9.9% — close to 8% — but it’s still higher than any other state in the country.
The ramifications of this segregation play out in all sorts of ways.
Let’s look just at the financial effects of NJ’s predilection for educating children with disabilities in restrictive environments.
When NJSBA released its report four years ago, NJ had 230,000 children classified as eligible for special education services, about 15% of our total school population. The costs for educating those children for the years studied in the report were about $3.3 billion per year. (It’s higher now.) The great bulk of those costs were tuition to out-of-district public and private placements – our most restrictive environments – and transportation to those schools.
[For a different assessment, look at ASAH’s cost analysis, also published in 2007. It concludes that, in fact, private special ed schools are cheaper than in-district options because private schools have to include pension, social security, health benefits, facilities construction, and debt service in tuition costs. ASAH argues that public school misrepresent their per pupil costs by not incorporating these expenses.)
For example, according to ASAH, in 2005-2006 the NJ DOE reported per annual per pupil costs for non-disabled kids of $13,169. But if you factor in other expenses it was really $18,083. Using those adjustments, ASAH estimates that the cost per pupil for kids placed in private special ed schools in 2005-2006 was really only $44,944 per year. County Special Services school districts cost $59,306 per year per child and regular in-district placements were $54,103 per year.
ASAH concedes that it hasn’t included transportation costs into those numbers and that “further study is warranted.”]
The devil, as always, is in the details. Here’s the NJ DOE list of approved tuition rates for private special education schools for 2010-2011. The lowest tuition, $32,758 per year, is at Community School in Bergen County, which serves kids with Attention Deficit Disorder and minor learning differences. The highest tuition rates are for schools that serve kids with autism, who often require one-on-one instruction. For example, Garden Academy in Essex County has a tuition of $111,903 per year, Princeton Child Development Institute in Mercer comes in at $95,675, and Somerset Hills Learning Institute (Somerset) is $113,936 per year. (These numbers don’t include summer tuition for Extended School Year, a mandated program for kids with significant disabilities, which generally cost between $6K to $10K per summer. Transportation adds on another $5 – $10K.)
The costs for these 8% of classified children placed in out-of-district placements is almost 40% of our total expenditures on special education.
There’s wide variation among districts on the numbers of kids sent to out-of-district placements.
For example Trenton Public Schools sends 6% of its total enrollment of 11,564 kids – or 620 children – to out-of-district placements. That’s 6% of all their kids, not 6% of their classified kids, and about 37% of their special ed population. The cost of that segregation this year is $37.3 million, which doesn’t include transportation costs. This is a lower figure from previous years because the district is valiantly trying to create adequate in-district programming. (More here.)
But in the Montgomery Public Schools, a wealthy suburban district about 15 miles north, only 55 kids out of a total enrollment of 4,637 are sent out-of-district. That’s less than 1.5% of their total school population and about 10% of their special education population.
(For a closer look at these patterns, see the recent report prepared for the NJ DOE by Augenblick Palaich and Associates, which examines some demographic inequities within our special education system. Here’s my commentary on the APA report.)
In the end we spend lots of money to place kids with disabilities in restrictive environments – sometimes because their needs require out-of-district placements but sometimes because it’s the way we’ve always done business. It’s not that different than the way we educate our kids who are afflicted with a different kind of burden: poverty. One could argue that our Abbott districts – those 31 impoverished cities — are just another form of out-of-district placement, or at least a form of extreme segregation of that bars poor children from high-achieving schools with loads of opportunities for motivated kids.
Of course there’s a world of difference between a normal healthy child who happens to live in a poor family and a child with a diagnosis of autism or Down Syndrome or a behavioral disorder. Sure, they both require extended (and expensive) services that go beyond the typical 6-hour, 180 day school slot. Sure, they both require targeted instruction, smaller student-teacher ratios, and family outreach. Sure they both require exceptional teachers with special training so that educational needs are met and, as they say in the special ed world, potential is maximized.
But the educational delays engendered by poverty can be overcome. The educational delays engendered by genetics or developmental disorders (barring miracles on Lifetime TV) are here to stay. In NJ, we choose to exercise the option of, in Dr. Baker’s phrase, “extreme segregation” for both groups.
There’s mounds of literature, mostly from the “education reformy” groups (to borrow another of Dr. Baker’s terms), that emphasize the moral, political, and educational insults to typical children deprived of high-quality classrooms and successful peers. (Hasn’t gotten Jersey very far along the road of integration. Don’t get me started.) But what about the effects on the segregation of kids with special needs? We know our current system of extreme segregation costs a lot. But what does it mean for the 199,205 classified New Jersey children?
Please pipe in.