NJ's Special Education Inequities

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:

Then there’s this:
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?

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