Special Education in N.J. Gets A Task Force

NJ Spotlight reports today on the complex task awaiting the members of the state Task Force for Improving Special Education of Public School Students. Members, listed in the article, have until the end of the year to offer recommendations for quality of programs and controlling costs.

Currently, NJ spends over $3.5 billion a year on mandated services for children with disabilities.

It’s likely that the Task Force will study annual tuition costs at N.J.’s robust industry of private special education schools. Each year the state publishes a list of approved tuition for each school, although the calculations are obscure. Here’s the list (click on “Exhibit A” for 2014-2015). Some of the high-flyers are The Garden Academy in Essex County at $116/year, Princeton Child Development Institute in Mercer at $106K/year, Reed Academy in Bergen at $105/year. These figures include Extended School Year, or summer programs, but not transportation, which is supplied by local districts. These particular schools focus on children with autism, a high-cost disability.

For a sense of how tuition can affect district bottom line, look at these minutes from last June 27th at Lakewood Public Schools. A long list of out-of-district placements begins on page 58. Over one hundred children are placed at SCHI, or the School For Children with Hidden Intelligence.  The state lists the approved tuition at $88K/year, but the vast majority of tuition payments from Lakewood, which supplies virtually all of the students, are listed in the Board Minutes at $92,837. Not sure what to make of that. Children who attend SCHI with  a one-on-one aide have annual tuition of about $120K.

Then again, Lakewood is not your typical district. Most of N.J.'s public schools work long and hard to place students in the "least restrictive environment," for legal, moral, and fiscal reasons.

One idea often floated to control costs is capping tuition increases, much as districts have to cap their tax increases, not to mention superintendent salaries. This proposal has been a no-go, although ASAH, the umbrella organization for N.J.’s private special education schools, has lately signaled a willingness to consider a cap.  Certainly, that's a place for the Task Force to start.