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Special Education Programs, Private Placements, Under Assault

15 Feb

Education week has an article, Special Education Programs, Private Placements, Under Assault, describing some of the recent efforts by states to reduce special education costs.

From Michael Bloomberg suggesting pulling students out of private placements. He cites $100M spent for 4,000 students. I had to check on what that means–it works out to $25,000 per student.

Would this really save money? Probably not:

Sweet said there’s actually very little difference between the dollars spent on private and public schools for special education students because both can easily cost more than $25,000 annually compared to about $17,000, on average, for a general education student.

EdWeek reports that a Texas lawmaker proposed charging parents tuition for state-run schools for the Deaf or Blind (a proposal that is against federal law). And Utah suggested cutting cutting schools for the deaf and blind altogether. They just forgot about the fact that deaf and blind students would still be in Utah and need an education.

Times are tough, economically. Special education is expensive. Let’s hope that few lawmakers go for the false economy of cutting special ed. It really isn’t going to give a real return.

House GOP Looks to Slash Education Spending

14 Feb

House GOP Looks to Slash Education Spending is an article at Education Week. It’s a scary read.

It starts out:

House Republican leaders put out a bill last night that would slice and dice education funding far below current levels and far below what President Barack Obama wanted in his never-enacted fiscal year 2011 budget request.

Fiscal year 2011. That’s this year. Yes, they would cut funds out of the budget that’s already ongoing. How much?

The measure, which would continue federal funding for rest of the fiscal year, takes aim at some programs that were previously considered untouchable, including special education spending and Pell Grants to help low-and-moderate income students pay for college. Overall it would cut $4.9 billion from the U.S. Department of Education’s fiscal year 2010 budget of $63.7 billion.

$4.9 billion. That’s a big chunk of change. About 8% of the total budget.

What really scares this reader is this statement:

Special education, which is typically a Republican priority, would be cut by $557 million, below its $11.5 billion funding in fiscal 2010.

About a 5% cut.

As we’ve discussed a number of times, in the US, the Federal government “committed” to pay 40% of special education costs. That commitment has never been met, with federal support levels of about 17% being more typical.

Schools will be facing budget cuts in the following year. State and local tax revenues, the primary source of elementary and secondary education funding, are down. Now is the time for the federal government to step in and make good on their commitment. Step in and help save the programs, help school administrators to focus on keeping kids in appropriate placements, not force them to make bad decisions in order to meet budgets.

Autistic young adults missing out on much-needed services

9 Feb

Prof. Paul Shattuck, of Washington University in Saint Louis, is one of those people I greatly admire. He has repeatedly taken on studies of groups who are often overlooked in the majority of studies.

In a just release paper, Prof. Shattuck has studied what happens to young autistic adults as they transition out of high school. Sadly, about 40% stop receiving services post high school. Levels of services for speech therapy, mental health, medical diagnostics and case management all dropped notably after high school.

Low income and African American young adults were much more likely to not receive services.

Shattuck also found that the odds of not receiving any services were more than three times higher for African-American young adults compared with white young adults and more than five times higher for those with incomes of $25,000 or less relative to those with incomes over $75,000.

Rather than summarize this work here, let me present the news release. Follow the link for a video press release with Prof. Shattuck.

What happens to young adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) once they graduate high school and are no longer entitled to services?

“National, state and local policy makers have been working hard to meet the needs of the growing numbers of young children identified as having an ASD,” says Paul Shattuck, PhD, professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. “However, there has been no effort of a corresponding magnitude to plan for ensuring continuity of supports and services as these children age into adulthood.”

In a first-of-its-kind study, Shattuck looked at rates of service use among young adults with an ASD during their first few years after leaving high school. He found that 39.1 percent of these youths received no speech therapy, mental health, medical diagnostics or case management services.

Shattuck also found that the odds of not receiving any services were more than three times higher for African-American young adults compared with white young adults and more than five times higher for those with incomes of $25,000 or less relative to those with incomes over $75,000.

In his study, published in the current issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Shattuck looked at medical, mental health, speech therapy and case management services.

He found that overall rates of service use were 23.5 percent for medical services, 35 percent for mental health services, 41.9 percent for case management and 9.1 percent for speech therapy.

This compares with service use while in high school: 46.2 percent received mental health services, 46.9 percent had medical services, 74.6 percent were getting speech therapy and 63.6 percent had a case manager.

Shattuck says that the years immediately following the age at which students typically exit from high school are pivotal for all youths.

“A positive transition creates a solid foundation for an adaptive adult life course and a negative transition can set the stage for a pathway fraught with developmental, health and social difficulties,” he says.

“Youths with ASDs are especially vulnerable during this period because of their challenges with communication and social interaction, greater reliance on others for aid and high rates of health and mental health problems.”

Shattuck notes that there is a dearth of nationally representative data on the prevalence and correlates of service use among young adults with ASDs.

“Basic descriptive data on the prevalence and patterns of service use are necessary for planning by policy makers and administrators,” Shattuck says. “Knowledge of service use can help identify underserved populations and plan targeted services.

“Estimates of service use and correlates will help clinicians, service providers and family members be more informed and better prepared as they try to help teens with ASDs navigate the transition from adolescence to young adulthood,” he says.

Data for this report came from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2 (NLTS2), a 10-year study conducted from 2000-2010 by SRI International for the U.S. Department of Education that followed more than 11,000 youths enrolled in special education as they aged into adulthood.

The study included 920 youths enrolled in the special education autism category at the start of data collection in May 2001.

The study’s co-authors are Mary Wagner, PhD, principal scientist in the Center for Education and Human Services at SRI International, and Sarah Narendorf, Paul Sterzing and Melissa Hensley of Washington University in St. Louis.

Special Education Court Decisions on the Rise

1 Feb

Christina Samuels at Education Week has a recent piece Special Education Court Decisions on the Rise. She describes a study from Lehigh University which shows that the number of special education court decisions is on the rise:

After two decades of decline, education litigation appears to be on the rise, with special education leading the way, according to an analysis from Lehigh University professor Perry A. Zirkel, an expert in special education law.

Zirkel’s paper on his findings will appear in full in an upcoming issue of West’s Education Law Reporter, but he walked me through the findings.

Using West’s Key Number System, Zirkel tabulated state and federal court decisions by decades, starting in the 1940s. In the 1970s, state and federal education decisions combined reached a high of about 7,600 decisions, but dropped to about 7,300 decisions in the 1980s and under 7,000 decisions in the 1990s. When Zirkel counted the cases for 2000 through November 2010, he expected to see the same downward trend. Instead, the number was higher even than in the 1970s, at about 8,000 reported decisions

The rise is due to an increase in Federal court cases. State court decisions are declining.

It is worth noting that not all cases are brought forth by parents. A story from May 2010 indicates that in California 4 of 9 decisions issued were brought forth by the district.

It is also worth noting that districts tend to prevail. The paper from Lehigh indicates that 65% of cases are won by districts and that this fraction hasn’t changed with time.

In the story from California, in only 1 of 9 cases were clearly won by the family.

In other Special Ed news:

A recent piece at Disability Scoop, Parents Threaten Suit Alleging Special Education Cuts ‘Disproportionate’, discusses how in a Connecticut district, layoffs are focused on special education:

Parents in one Connecticut town are threatening to sue after learning that special educators would bear the brunt of proposed layoffs while other teachers would be unaffected.

Under a budget plan from the superintendent of the Stamford, Conn. school district, 12 special education teachers would be let go in addition to five of the district’s social workers and four speech pathologists. Meanwhile, it would be business as usual for the regular education staff.

A story from Nashua, New Hampshire discusses rising special education costs, especially those involving out of district placements.

Placing special education students in schools outside the district can be expensive and unpredictable.

While most special ed placements run somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000, some cost the district more than $100,000. And when a new student moves in who needs extensive educational services, it can have a dramatic impact on the budget.

Just in the last month, the district has gone from 95 placements to 107, in part because of new students moving into the city, according to school officials.

The story caught my eye for a good statement from the special education director:

“We do everything we can to appropriately educate our kids, but some youngsters have challenges beyond what we can provide,” said Jan Martin, director of special education.

Obama’s State of the Union Address 2011

26 Jan

Last night Barack Obama gave the annual “State of the Union” address to the American people. I have to admit, I missed it, so I waited for a transcript to come out. I searched for “autism”. I searched for “disability”. I found nothing. I searched for “education”. There was much on education, but nothing about special education. OK, there wasn’t anything on autism, disability or special education in 2010’s speech either. I don’t think it was in 2009 either.

Aside from my own interests, why would I look to these speeches for mention of autism or disability or special education? It’s because I remember the promises made on the campaign trail. I remember the disability plan that the Obama/Biden campaign had then.

I remember the promise to fully fund the federal government’s commitment to special education:

Fully Funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Barack Obama has been a strong and consistent advocate for fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Congress promised to shoulder 40 percent of each state’s “excess cost” of educating children with disabilities, but it has never lived up to this obligation. Currently, the federal government provides less than half of the promised funding (17 percent). Children are being shortchanged, and their parents are forced to fight with cash-strapped school districts to get the free and appropriate education the IDEA promises their children. Fully funding IDEA will provide students with disabilities the public education they have a right to, and school districts will be able to provide services without cutting into their general education budgets. In addition to fully funding IDEA, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will ensure effective implementation and enforcement of the Act.

IDEA is still not fully funded. The economic stimulus funds did give a one-year boost to IDEA funding (not 100% funded, but a lot more than usual). No long term commitment to keep higher levels has come through.

I remember autism being prominent in the plan:

Supporting Americans Living with Autism Spectrum Disorders: More than one million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a complex neurobiological condition that has a range of impacts on thinking, feeling, language, and the ability to relate to others. As diagnostic criteria broaden and awareness increases, more cases of ASD have been recognized across the country. Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe we need to research treatments and search for the causes of ASD. Obama has been a strong supporter of more than $1 billion in federal funding for ASD research on the root causes and treatments. Barack Obama and Joe Biden believes we must work to guarantee that Americans with ASD can live independent and fully productive lives and to assure that their families understand and are able to support a loved one with ASD. They will fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to ensure that no child with ASD or any other disability is left behind. They will also fight to assure that the government and our communities work together to provide a helping hand to people with ASD and their families.

Obama has a long record supporting people with ASD. In the state senate, Obama sponsored legislation that became law to create the ASD Program – a systems development initiative designed to promote the implementation of evidence-based practices. And in the U.S. Senate, Obama is also a cosponsor of a measure that would expand federal funding for life-long services for people with ASD, authorizing approximately $350 million in new federal funding for key programs related to treatments, interventions and services for both children and adults with ASD.

More money has gone into research, especially a big one-year boost from the economic stimulus funds.

The Obama/Biden campaign had an autism specific agenda document, which included an individual to oversee federal autism efforts:

Appoint Federal ASD Coordinator to Oversee All Federal ASD Efforts: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will ensure all federal ASD activities occur in an efficient manner that prioritizes both research and supports for families affected by ASD. They will appoint a Federal ASD Coordinator to oversee federal ASD research and federal efforts to improve awareness of ASD and improve the training of medical professionals to identify and treat ASD. By establishing one top-level point person to coordinate ASD efforts in the White House, they will ensure that ASD receives the recognition and priority it deserves in the federal government. The Federal ASD Coordinator will also be tasked with eliminating bureaucratic obstacles that may be delaying implementation of important ASD measures and ensuring that all federal ASD dollars are being spent in a manner that prioritizes results. The Coordinator will work with state task forces on ASD to ensure effective communication and collaboration among federal, state, and local agencies.

I remember these things. I bet a lot of readers here do too. We remember. We vote.

Large Network of Private Schools Pays $215,000 to Settle Lawsuit Alleging Discrimination Against Children with Disabilities

22 Jan

Below is a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice. A company that runs a large group of schools (preschool/elementary and secondary) settled a case alleging discrimination of disabled students. Even private schools can not exclude children based on disability, “making reasonable modifications of policies to permit children with disabilities to participate fully in the programs they offer”.

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department today announced the settlement of a lawsuit filed to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) against Nobel Learning Communities, Inc. (NLC), a private, for-profit entity that operates a nationwide network of more than 180 preschools, elementary schools and secondary schools. These entities operate in the District of Columbia and in 15 states (Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington) under a variety of names, including Chesterbrook Academy, Merryhill School and Evergreen Academy, among others.

In its lawsuit, filed in April 2009 in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the Justice Department alleged that NLC violated Title III of the ADA by excluding from its programs children with disabilities, including some children with autism spectrum disorder, Down Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and global developmental delays. NLC denies the allegations.

“It is illegal under the ADA to discriminate against children with disabilities. Just like public schools, private schools must make reasonable modifications of policies to permit children with disabilities to participate fully in the programs they offer,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez. “This agreement ensures that children will not be denied quality preschool and other educational opportunities based upon their disabilities.”

U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Zane David Memeger, noted, “no child should be discriminated against on the basis of disability. All children should have an equal opportunity to attend any school for which they qualify, and schools must make reasonable modifications to policies, practices or procedures in accordance with the law.”

Key provisions of the Settlement Agreement include the following:

· Disability Non-Discrimination Policy: NLC has adopted and will implement a formal policy to ensure that it will operate its programs, facilities, and services in a non-discriminatory manner to comply with Title III of the ADA.

· Publicity: NLC will publicize the Disability Non-Discrimination Policy to its principals, teachers, and other staff at all facilities in the NLC network. The policy will be posted on NLC’s website and member schools’ websites. Paper copies of the policy will be available to any person upon request.

· Monetary Relief: Upon receipt of appropriate releases, NLC has agreed to pay $215,000.00 collectively to the children referred to in the United States’ First Amended Complaint.

· Commitment to Avoid Unnecessary Inquiries: In accordance with the requirements of the ADA, NLC will not make unnecessary inquiries into the existence of a disability or impose or apply eligibility criteria that screen out or tend to screen out students with disabilities from the full and equal enjoyment of NLC’s goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations.

· Reasonable Modification Requests: NLC will, among other things, engage in a process to consider requests from a student’s parent(s)/guardian(s) for reasonable modifications of NLC’s programs and services when such modifications are necessary to afford NLC’s programs and services to students with disabilities, unless NLC can demonstrate that making such modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations at issue.

· Appointment of an ADA Compliance Officer: NLC will designate a person who is knowledgeable about the ADA and its implementing regulations, and who will communicate with parents/guardians on decisions regarding requests for reasonable modifications. In addition, (s)he will review (for compliance with the Disability Non-Discrimination Policy) all decisions not to enroll a student with a disability, or to disenroll a student with a disability.

· Training: At specified periods during the term of the settlement agreement, NLC will train its regional executives, principals and assistant principals on the content of the Disability Non-Discrimination Policy and the terms and conditions of the settlement agreement. NLC will also require all of its teachers and assistant teachers to read the policy and report requests for reasonable modifications to appropriate NLC personnel.

· Reporting and Tracking: NLC will track and report to the United States, at one year and at 18 months from the effective date of the settlement agreement, information including the number of applicants with disabilities and their ultimate enrollment status, as well as the number of requests received on behalf of applicants and current students for reasonable modifications (and whether the modifications were provided).

Those interested in learning more about federal disability rights statutes can call the Justice Department’s toll-free ADA information line at 800-514-0301, 800-514-0383 (TTY) or access the ADA website at http://www.ada.gov .

Press coverage of special education costs during a budget crisis

20 Jan

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.

How much is the U.S. Federal government’s obligation towards funding special education?

4 Jan

When the U.S. federal government passed The Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, the law that has since become the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), they made a commitment to assist states in funding this mandate. In fact, the bill was originally introduced as “A bill to provide financial assistance to the States for improved educational services for handicapped children.”

Funding was obviously key to this bill.

I’ve often heard (and believed and written occasionally myself) that the government’s commitment is to fund 40% of special education costs. Here is a statement on Senator Dodd’s website as an example:

Currently, the federal government does not meet the goal it set in 1975 to fund 40 percent of states’ special education costs. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided a one-time investment, which increased federal funding to 34 percent. However, federal funding has otherwise never exceeded 18 percent.

On researching a recent post, I found this to be not precisely true. The federal government isn’t required to pay 40% of special education costs. Instead, they are “required” to pay states an amount equal to 40% of the average cost per student for each special ed student.

If you feel like you have to read that again to understand what I wrote, I understand. It took me a while to work this out myself. And you can see that I didn’t find a brief way to write it, either.

Under “Grants to States” section of the law, one can read:

(a) Purpose of grants. The Secretary makes grants to States, outlying areas, and freely associated States (as defined in Sec. 300.717), and provides funds to the Secretary of the Interior, to assist them to provide special education and related services to children with disabilities in accordance with Part B of the Act.

(b) Maximum amount. The maximum amount of the grant a State may receive under section 611 of the Act is–

(1) For fiscal years 2005 and 2006–

(i) The number of children with disabilities in the State who are receiving special education and related services–

(A) Aged three through five, if the State is eligible for a grant under section 619 of the Act; and

(B) Aged 6 through 21; multiplied by–

(ii) Forty (40) percent of the average per-pupil expenditure in public elementary schools and secondary schools in the United States (as defined in Sec. 300.717); and

(2) For fiscal year 2007 and subsequent fiscal years–

(i) The number of children with disabilities in the 2004-2005 school year in the State who received special education and related services–

(A) Aged three through five if the State is eligible for a grant under section 619 of the Act; and

(B) Aged 6 through 21; multiplied by

(ii) Forty (40) percent of the average per-pupil expenditure in public elementary schools and secondary schools in the United States (as defined in Sec. 300.717);

(iii) Adjusted by the rate of annual change in the sum of–

(A) Eighty-five (85) percent of the State’s population of children aged 3 through 21 who are of the same age as children with disabilities for whom the State ensures the availability of FAPE under Part B of the Act; and

(B) Fifteen (15) percent of the State’s population of children described in paragraph (b)(2)(iii)(A) of this section who are living in poverty.

Emphasis added.

40% is accurate, but not 40% of special education costs. Instead “Forty (40) percent of the average per-pupil expenditure”. Average per-pupil expenditure is the average cost for all students, not just those in special education.

In the U.S., we spend about $10,000 per student, on average. So, the federal government is supposed to pay about $4,000 per special education student as their commitment. But they haven’t fulfilled their commitment. Rather than $4,000, they pay about $1,700.

$1,700. That’s how much the federal government pays each state per special ed student student. And–and–the state doesn’t pass all of that along to school districts.

If special education costs go up faster than regular education costs, the amount the Federal government is supposed to pay doesn’t go up.

This isn’t news. It’s been happening for about 35 years now. Long enough for states and school districts to factor this into their budgets. But, explains part of why districts may feel a bit of a pinch when it comes to special education costs. Special education is essentially an unfunded mandate. At a very real level it doesn’t matter that it is unfunded. Special education is the right and appropriate thing to do. However, it would sure help out a lot if the federal government would help out financially.

Recording IEP meetings

7 Dec

I was in BestBuy (and another electronics store) this past weekend. As I wandered around I stumbled upon microphones. This reminded me that I want to upgrade my method for recording IEP (Individual Education Plan) meetings. For those who may be unaware, U.S. Law allows parents or districts to record IEP meetings. WrightsLaw points out that this is not a universal right in the U.S.: “State departments of education or school districts can require, prohibit, limit, or regulate the use of recording devices at IEP meetings.” California has state laws allowing recording of IEP meetings. From DisabilityRightsCa.org:

51. Can I tape record an IEP meeting?

Yes. Parents may tape record an IEP meeting, even without the school district’s permission, as long as the parents give the school district 24 hours notice of their intention to do so. Similarly, a school district may tape record a meeting with 24 hours notice to the parent. However, the district cannot tape record the meeting if the parent objects. If the parent objects to the district tape recording, then there can be no tape recording of the meeting by either the district or the parent. [Cal. Ed. Code Sec. 56341.1(f)(1).]

Under federal law, audio tape recordings made by the school district are governed by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. [20 U.S.C. Sec. 1232(g).] In addition, you have the right:

(1) To inspect and review district-made tape recordings;

(2) To request that the tape recordings be amended if you believe that they contain information that is inaccurate, misleading, or in violation of the rights of privacy or other rights of the individual with exceptional needs; and

(3) To challenge, in a hearing, information that you believe is inaccurate, misleading, or in violation of the individual’s rights of privacy or other rights. [34 C.F.R. Sec. 99.10-99.22; Sec. 56341.1(f)(2)(A)&(B).]

Recording technology has changed a lot in the past few years. Only a few years ago, our district was still using tape recorders. Tapes are bulky and you might need a few tapes (and a lot of flipping of tapes) to get through a long meeting. You may find yourself transferring the tapes to a computer file anyway, adding more time and more chances to mess something up. Digital recorders are now ubiquitous. Smart (and not so smart) phones can serve as a digital recorder. Otherwise, there are a lot of options in the <$100 range (which wasn't the case a few years back). One can use a laptop, with the correct application (Microsoft windows includes an application that is limited to 60 second recordings).

IEP meetings are long and if you are recoding them, you should be prepared to listen to them. In addition, you may have to transcribe them. Room recordings from cheap microphones can be painful. Last think you want is the fatigue of listening for hours to an IEP meeting, with the fatigue of a bad recording, with the fatigue of having to transcribe, "And, on this very important point [garble]".

I'd be very interested in other people's experiences with somewhat more modern, yet portable equipment. Especially since now some digital recorders are packaged complete with speech-to-text software like Dragon Naturally Speaking. Software like that tends to be focused on dictation applications, where one person uses a microphone close up.

Special ed students could bankrupt districts

16 Nov

At least according to a television station in San Francisco, California. In Special ed students could bankrupt districts Lyanne Melendez lays out a simple thesis:

The budget problems facing schools across California are getting even worse. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of special education students in recent years and the added cost of teaching them could bankrupt some school districts.

Starting with a bad premise, the story is bound to come to a bad conclusion. First, there are no “added costs” to teaching special education students. There are costs to educating students. We as a country decided, rightfully so, that one can not deny a student an education because doing so would cost more than the average.

We often hear how special education budgets “encroach” on the general education budgets. That is a false idea. Special Education students *are* students. General funds money spent on Special Education students *is* appropriate.

The rest of the piece by Lyanne Melendez is a classic example of scapegoating. Sorry to put it so bluntly, but that is my take.

Scapegoat (noun): a person or group made to bear the blame for others or to suffer in their place.

Why do I say this? Let’s look at one of the examples given in the story, Gilroy Unified School District. Google Maps puts Gilroy 80 miles south of San Francisco. Not to pick on Gilroy, but the idea that Special Education is bankrupting them doesn’t hold water.

Gilroy Unified School District is one of those districts that is struggling to cover the costs of educating special needs students.

“In 2002, our unfunded special ed costs were about $170,000, this school year it’s $3,200,000,” district spokesperson Deborah Toups said.

First, this irks me. There is no “unfunded” Special Education costs. The schools may not be reimbursed specifically for all special education costs, but they aren’t supposed to. Yes, there was a commitment by the Federal government to pay 40% of the costs (this is a sore point for me), but that doesn’t mean that local communities shouldn’t be funding whatever the Federal government doesn’t pay. Special education students are a part of the student population. It is the responsibility of the people to educate all students.

Let’s check some simple numbers. In the past 8 years, the budget for Gilroy Unified has been going down and the enrollment has been going up.

The website for the district has a number of documents relating to the budget. Here is the 2010-2011 budget book and here is a table of the budget and projected budgets (click it to enlarge):

The total budget is $82M this year. $3M for special education would be a big chunk of that budget. But, is that the whole story? I couldn’t find the 2002 budget numbers, but in 2005, the budget for Gilroy Unified was $119M .

So, the budget is down $37M in 5 years. Could this, perhaps, be part of the financial problem for Girloy Unified?

How about student population? The number of special ed kids has actually dropped. Gilroy had 882 special ed students in the 2009-10 school year and 923 2002-03 school year.

Note that overall student enrollment went up from 9,630 students in 2002/03 to to 11,116 in 2009/10. So, total student enrollment is going up, revenues are down.

Also, if I did my math correctly, that means that Gilroy Unified saw a *drop* in the percentage of Special Education students from 9.2% to 8.3%.

If you are interested in some more detail: from 2002 to 2009, the number of students in the “autism” special education category went up from 10 to 63. At the same time, students in the “mental retardation” category went down from 60 to 36. These numbers were dwarfed by the big drop in the number of children in the “specific learning disability” category (from 443 to 218).

Back to the budget. Here is a quote from the budget book:

The 2010-11 Revised State Budget defers $12.6 billion in revenue limit funding for K-12 education, including $5 billion in payments which are being postponed from one fiscal year to the next. The District will not receive approximately 25% of the State portion of Prop. 98 Revenue Limit funding for 2010-11 until the following year (July & August 2011). These cash deferrals are expected to be ongoing.

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Yes, the State Government, in an effort to balance its own budget, isn’t paying school districts on time all the money they are committed to.
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When I looked for more information on Proposition 98 funding, I found this paragraph:

The Governor has stated that education has been “protected” in his proposed budget. It is important to note that “protected” does not mean that school districts will be spared further reductions. The District’s largest source of revenue, Prop. 98 Revenue Limit, has a funding deficit of 18.355%. In addition the Governor’s Proposed budget “fully funds” the cost of living allowance (COLA) at a negative 0.39% and adds an ongoing “targeted” funding reduction of 3.85% of school districts base revenue limit. The chart below shows the dollar amount per Average Daily Attendance (ADA) the District is entitled to under current funding formulas and the estimated funded amount.

So, the State is assuming that the cost of living is going down? Funding from Prop. 98 sources is down.

Another document that came up on the Gilroy Unified website for the search “budget” was Staff Letter re: 2010/2011 Budget. Here’s the opening paragraph:

The Governor released the proposed 2010-11 State Budget last week. Prior to its release, we were planning for budget reductions in the $3-4 million range. Unfortunately, the Governor’s budget significantly reduced funding for public schools and the amount we now need to cut is in the $6.3 million range – which is 11.4% of our unrestricted general fund budget. This unprecedented level of cuts follows two years of significant reductions in revenue from the State.

So, the State government “defers” paying the district, and “protects” education by reducing the payment they do make. How do we get from that to “special education students are bankrupting the district”?

Yes, California is having hard times. Yes, many special education students cost much more to educate than the average student. But, please, do we have to scapegoat these students with the label that they are “bankrupting” districts?