Following the Money

The Trenton Times reports today that an audit of Trenton Public Schools revealed that the district has $1.9 million dollar deficit because “last summer the district received bills for out-of-district special education programs it did not know students were attending.” Mark Cowell, the state fiscal monitor, told the school board, "[Trenton’s child study teams’ ] record keeping is not too good.”

We’ll withhold value judgements, but at the least it’s troubling. Then again, special education in New Jersey is troubling, at least in regards to overclassification of students as disabled. From Jay P. Greene, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute: “ One of the reasons we know that reported disability rates lack credibility is that they vary dramatically from state to state. In New Jersey, for example, 18 percent of all students are classified as disabled, but in California the rate is only 10.5 percent. There is no medical reason why students in New Jersey should be 71 percent more likely to be placed into special education than students in California.”

Our overclassification of minority students is worse, a long-time scourge of NJ’s education system. The NJ Council on Developmental Disabilities reports that “[a]lmost one in four male African-American students in New Jersey is identified as having a disability.” So maybe Trenton Public Schools should be congratulated for its low classification rate. On the other hand, there is that $1.9 million discrepancy. Let’s look at the record-keeping more closely.

Abbott districts tend to have very high rates of children classified as eligible for special education services. NJ outdoes just about every other state in bestowing labels of disability on children– an excellent report on special education funding from the Education Law Center puts it at 11.9% -- but our poor districts blow that number out of the park. For example, John Kennedy High School in Paterson has 24.1% of their students listed in the state data base as special ed eligible, Wildwood High in Cape May County has 30.2% of their kids in that category, and Camden Central High says 33.2% of its kids are disabled.

Yet not in Trenton. According to the NJ Report Cards for 2008-2009, the two high schools in Trenton, Trenton Central High and Daylight Twilight High, have precisely 15.6% of kids listed as eligible for special ed. Hmm. Among Trenton’s middle schools, Grace Dunn classifies 15.6% of its students and Wilson classifies 15.6% of its students. Trenton has a number of K-8 schools; classification percentages range from 11.4% (PJ Hill) to 19.8% (Luis Munoz-Rivera). The lowest classification rates for K-5 schools were 7.6% at Wilson and the high was exactly 14.3% at both Parker and Cadwalader.

Trenton’s $1.9 million deficit flags more than poor record-keeping from child study teams. At about $40K - $45K for an out-of-district placement, i.e., sending a child with disabilities to either a county special services district, a private special education schools, or another public school district, that $1.9 million represents about 45 kids lost somewhere in the netherworld of Trenton’s public schools. Then again, it's hard to believe the numbers coming out of Trenton anyway.