Special Ed Segregation

Today’s Star-Ledger looks at the increasing cost of educating children with special needs in out-of-district placements, and districts' efforts to create in-district classrooms. Fact from the article: Bedminster’s Somerset Hills Learning Institute for autistic children costs more than $116,000 per student this year.

Here’s another fact (not from the article): New Jersey classifies children as eligible for special education services at a higher rate than any other state in the country. In fact 18%, almost 1 in 5, of our children are diagnosed with either learning disabilities or other handicaps. To round out the picture, we classify minority children at a much higher rate than white kids. From a 2007 report from the Harvard School of Education:
In Florida, Alabama, Delaware, New Jersey, and Colorado, the number of African-American students identified as mentally retarded was more than three times that of white students.
From Jay P. Greene, Head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas:
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.
From the NJ Center for Developmental Disabilities’ study, “Where Are We Now? Still Segregated in New Jersey:”
Almost one in four male African-American students in New Jersey is identified as having a disability. Although progress has been made in several areas, an alarming pattern of segregation continues among students receiving special education services in New Jersey.
Either there’s something in the water (hmm…we’re pondering “Jersey Shore” and “Housewives of New Jersey”) or we hand out special education labels like peppermint sticks at Christmas time, especially to our Black kids. According to the NJ DOE data base, 33.2% of kids at the almost-all-Black Camden High are labeled as eligible for special education services. At Cherry Hill High West (mostly White kids), also in Camden County, 13.8% of kids are labeled as eligible for special education services.

So we classify far more kids in NJ than in other states, and among those kids are a disparate number of minority kids. New Jersey, due to its home rule mania, also tends to support far more private special education schools; 591 mostly small districts can’t drum up a large enough cohort of, say, autistic kids, to justify the costs of an entire classroom, so it’s easier and, in the short term, cheaper to pay that high tuition. The result is a whole other kind of segregation, the kind that excludes all children with disabilities from their home communities and, more specifically, excludes minority kids, who may or may not be disabled, from typical peers.

We’re the victims of our municipal madness and our funding mechanism for special education, which provides more money to the district if the child has “extraordinary needs,” i.e., is eligible for services that cost a lot -- like out-of-district placements -- although those placements are sometimes entirely appropriate.

The disproportionate number of minority kids classified here is far more troubling. Is it the funding? The advantages to excluding struggling kids from standardized tests or rambunctious ones from inclusive classroom? Amidst all of NJ’s educational woes, this one flies under the radar. It shouldn’t.