Special Needs News
Reining in Special Education
WHEN Susan Cohen and Barry Berg moved to Maplewood from Weehawken five years ago, they assumed they would have to find a good private school for their son Julian. He was 3 years old at the time and had fragile X syndrome, considered the leading cause of autism.
For the first two years, they sent Julian to a preschool program in New York City, but for kindergarten they began to look for the right placement in New Jersey. The cost of private schools was shocking, ranging from $30,000 to $45,000 a year. But other parents assured the couple that they could get the district to pay for it because New Jersey does so much more for disabled students than most other states.
Julian never went to private school, however. After meeting with a special education team in the South Orange/Maplewood School District to develop what is known as an individual education plan, his parents said they were pleasantly surprised to find that the best place was actually their neighborhood school, a mile from their home. And this week, for the third year, Julian will return to Tuscan Elementary School, where he will be in a classroom with six students, a teacher and two aides.
The outcome was also satisfactory for the school district, which like so many in New Jersey is dealing with an increasing number of special education students even as a lagging economy is forcing districts to pare down their budgets.
The numbers are daunting. When public schools open in New Jersey this week, there will be more than 218,000 students between the ages of 3 and 21 classified for special education - about 16 percent of the 1.4 million public school children in the state. The students' problems range from mild learning disabilities to multiple handicaps.
According to Barbara Gantwerk, director of the Office of Special Education Programs for the state Department of Education, the rate is one of the highest in the country, and it is up from 163,000 students in 1990 and 205,500 in 2000. Even so, requests by parents to have their children classified are often denied, which can result in prolonged and costly legal battles.
Yut'se Thomas, director of the state's Office of School Funding, said that while the average cost of education in New Jersey is about $10,000 per pupil, the price tag for a special education student can range from about $20,000 to $100,000 for a private placement. Currently, Ms. Thomas said, about 19,000 students in New Jersey are being placed outside their districts.
As the number of students and the cost of their educations increase, school districts in the state - many of which had their requests for budget increases voted down last spring - are finding that they can no longer pay for special education despite the 1975 federal law, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, that guarantees a ''free and appropriate public education" for all disabled students.
As a result, school boards and administrators - along with parents whose children are not classified - are increasingly raising a once-taboo subject: saving money in special education by saying no to parents who demand a private placement and offering them special in-house programs like classrooms for students with autism and emotional disabilities. In some cases, administrators are even asking parents to bring their children back from private placements to save districts hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition and transportation costs.
Mark Finkelstein, superintendent of the Middlesex County Educational Services Commission, which provides special education services for 25 of the state's 610 districts, said that schools - despite the fear of sounding insensitive - find themselves having to adopt the philosophy that "a free and appropriate education doesn't have to be the most expensive program."
James Murphy, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said the worsening economic picture has "pitted parents against parents."
"Parents say, "We think special education students should get what they need, but don't take it away from my kid,' " Mr. Murphy said.
In the past, districts tried to include classified students in regular education programs, supplementing their education with an aide or some other support, and as a last resort paying for a private school out of the district. But now there is an urgent need to match the programs in the state's private schools, especially when they have a concentration of students with similar disabilities.
'Whole New Philosophy'
"It's a whole new philosophy," Mr. Finkelstein said. "The economy has forced districts to look at these programs. As more successes are realized, more districts will come on board."
To that end, many districts have started new programs in the past two years, or are planning to do so this fall.
In Westfield, where 1,000 of the district's 5,700 pupils are classified for special education, two classrooms for emotionally disturbed high school students have opened in the past two and half years. There are 16 students in the classes who would have previously been in private placement, said Dr. Ted Kozlik, director of special services and the president of the National Association of Pupil Services Administrators.
In South Orange and Maplewood, which have more than 900 classified students out of 6,300 public school children, six new special education programs will be introduced this year, including an integrated kindergarten for regular and special education students, a classroom for students with language learning disabilities, a high school classroom for students with emotional disabilities and a middle school classroom for students with multiple handicaps. While 125 students were placed out of district last year, Dr. Linda Arrington-Bowles, director of pupil services, said the hope was that the number would drop below 100 this year.
"We are slowly begin to transfer students back into our school system," Dr. Arrington-Bowles said.
The same is true in other districts throughout the state. Beginning in Edison this year, there will be two classrooms for children ages 5 to 7 and one classroom for preschool students with autism. Of the 13,200 student in the district, about 1,435 are classified, including 100 with autism, said Dr. Shirley Ikeda, the superintendent, and the district has contracted with the Middlesex Country consortium to implement and run the program.
In Cherry Hill, where 1,450 of the district's 11,600 students are classified, new classrooms and programs for students with autism are starting up, said Charlie Lange, director of special services, and the number of students going out of district for special services is expected to drop from 104 last year to 94 this school year.
Nancy Novack, director of pupil services, in Montgomery Township, Somerset County, which started a program for autistic students four years ago, plans to open a classroom for third- and fourth graders in addition to classrooms it currently has for pre-school children and students in kindergarten through second grade. The district, which has about 450 of its 4,300 students enrolled in special education, trained teachers this summer in alternative approaches to reading instruction like the Wilson Reading Program in the hope that some children would be able to improve their reading skills enough to avoid being classified for special education.
And Jersey City schools have contracted with the Middlesex County Education Services Commission to review their special education department and make recommendations on how to save money by providing good programs within the district.
In 1975, when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was instituted, the plan was for the federal government to provide 40 percent of the funds for special education, Ms. Gantwerk said. Yet in New Jersey, Ms. Thomas said, the federal government is contributing only about 12 to 15 percent of the cost.
The state will give $926 million to New Jersey's school districts this year for special education, along with another $52 million in extraordinary aid for children whose expenses are more than $40,000 a year. The amount of extraordinary aid is up $37 million from last year, Ms. Thomas said.
Lack of Financing Cited
"It boils down to the state and federal government do not provide the funding they should," said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. "They really don't have anywhere to look but property taxpayers."
There are more than 600 districts in the state, and many spend from 15 to 20 percent of their school budgets on special education - or a total of close to $2 billion a year - said Mr. Murphy of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.
For example, Westfield, with a $64 million school budget, spends $11 million to finance special education. And Cherry Hill will spend about $15 million of a $132 million school budget on special education this year.
But with state aid stagnant and property taxes rising, more administrators have begun to tighten the belt on special education.
"From 1975 into the 90's, special education was a in a continuous growth pattern," said Mr. Finkelstein, who heads one of 10 consortiums in New Jersey where districts band together to provide services.
"Groups lobbied and were successful," he said. "At the same time, the funds from those improvements had to come from somewhere. It came from the regular education domain, and there is resentment."
In addition to increased costs in transportation and salaries, filling positions is costing more and more because of the difficulty in finding educators who are willing and able to take the jobs, Mr. Kozlik said. For instance, special services directors now earn from $85,000 to $140,000 a year - comparable to salaries for high school principals..
Over the past 30 years, decisions about whether a child should be classified and where he or she should be placed were often driven by fear of litigation rather than by what was best for the student, educators say. How well new programs will be accepted in the schools will to a large part depend on how they are received by the parents.
"This is a very litigious field," said Dr. Kathleen Rotter, assistant professor of special education at The College of New Jersey and a former special services administrator in the Hillsborough School District. "More than litigation, it's the fear of litigation. You would rather give it up in the I.E.P. (individual education plan) meeting than go to court."
As Mr. Belluscio of the New Jersey School Board Association put it, the federal law "gives parents a lot of power to challenge any decision made by the schools."
"The law is structured to give the parents a very strong voice," he said.
The desire to avoid litigation can also come into play when deciding whether to classify a child, Dr. Rotter said.
"Our eligibility standards are not clear at all," she said. "It's easier to determine if a child is mentally retarded, but the definition for learning disability is not an agreed standard. There is no formula, and schools have to find their own way."
Theodore Sussan, a lawyer in Spotswood who has handled special education cases for the past two decades, says many parents are reluctant to try a new program in the district.
"I hear about that all the time," Mr. Sussan said. "My cases are involved in that issue. The cost is often fairly significant and school districts, understandably, want to minimize that cost. Sometimes they get something that doesn't deliver what the child is entitled to. It's something parents don't want to try because they don't want to take a risk with their child's future."
Other times, he said, the public school hires the right specialists and truly has the best program for the child. "If the program is appropriate, the district is to be applauded," Mr. Sussan said.
Not surprisingly, parents whose children are attending classes out of their own districts are reluctant to try a new program if they are finding success in the current atmosphere, said Debra Jennings, executive co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, a nonprofit organization that advises parents and professionals of rights and education programs in the state.
"When you are the parent of a child with disabilities, you don't want to hear that you are part of balancing the school budget," Ms. Jennings said.
Trying to Strike a Balance
The hope of educators is that they will strike the right note to please both parents of classified students and the rest of the taxpayers.
In Middlesex County, Mr. Finkelstein sees programs like the one his consortium is starting at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt School annex in Edison as the pattern for many other plans in the county. At the Roosevelt school, three classrooms will open this fall for children with autism who in previous years would have been bused to programs outside the district.
"Every year we surveyed our 25 districts with the old Ed Koch question, 'How am I doing?' " he said. "What they said was, 'We want programs within our schools.' There is no question that in this county more districts will start doing this."
Bringing programs into district can save as much as $8,000 to $12,000 per student, said Mr. Finkelstein, who for 20 years was director of special services in Perth Amboy and Woodbridge. Moreover, he said, the advantage for the child is that he is in his local school and not bused a long distance.
"It is unconscionable to transport a 3-year-old an hour and a half each way," he said. "You have students now who won't be on buses for hours. They will be 15 minutes from home."
But Mr. Finkelstein does not encourage districts to rush into these programs without considering the amount of training and the types of professionals needed to make them work.
"Hiring a teacher and hiring an aide doesn't work," he said. "You have to train the whole school. It's a comprehensive undertaking. It's the right way to go if you have the space and the expertise."
Phyllis DeLucia, who will supervise the three classes in Edison this year, said she had already met with parents to assure them that their children would receive high-quality services.
"There is some apprehension because this is a new thing," Ms. DeLucia said. "In any I.E.P.decision, communication is vital. We are trying to do this the right way. We will continue to meet on different topics and even do training for parents. It's vital to parents that we communicate. It's a lifeline. We do everything to make the parents comfortable."
Colleen Connolly-Jones and her husband, David, moved to New Jersey from Scottsdale, Ariz., because they were looking for the best school programs for their son, Matthew, one of their three children, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3.
"In Arizona, the programs were so behind the times and so lacking," said Mrs. Connolly-Jones, who grew up in Hamilton and now lives in Montgomery Township.
She said she looked at several private schools, but when they moved two years ago, she put Matthew in Village Elementary School, a few miles from their home. After observing the class, she decided she liked the program, and she liked the idea that one of his brothers would be in the classroom next door.
"It was a team effort like I'd never seen in Arizona," she said.
What is more, she said: "It's important to be on a playground with regular-education children. This is based on our needs, and I'm not anti-private school They want the best program for Matthew here. If we had a chance to move Matthew into a private school, no way would I take it."
Next Monday, Matthew will begin his third year at Orchard Hill Elementary in Montgomery Township in a class with seven students, a teacher and two aides.
"Obviously, there are many fine programs nearby, but we are attempting to provide services in our district," said Nancy Novack, director of pupil service for Montgomery Township schools. "The district has a commitment to provide services to these children."
Ms. Cohen in Maplewood hopes that her child will be able to stay in the district, but she says they will have to take one year at a time.
"We are a little worried because we are not sure they have a good program in middle school and high school," she said. "There is no right answer. It's what feels right for your child at the time."
Reining in Special Education
New York Times
INDEX OF SPECIAL NEEDS NEWS