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Special Education: The expensive vehicle that will help drive our children to a better future

Local schools are called upon to make major investments in the lives of children with special needs
Name : Ronald Scaglia

Last year, 21 Long Island school districts’ budgets were defeated, and a record number were forced to adopt austerity budgets.

Recent scandals involving the theft and misappropriation of taxpayer funds, an aging Long Island population and ever increasing property taxes all likely played a role in those defeats. And, while school officials in both Nassau and Suffolk County are working hard this year to ensure that their budgets are passed, taxpayers continue to ask why are costs so high?

One answer is the increased cost of providing an ever growing population of special education students with the vital services they need.

“Special education is a great expense,” said Lindenhurst Superintendent Neil Lederer. “Most special education expenses are mandated by New York State or the federal government and the expense is certainly justified. In Lindenhurst, we work to ensure that our special education program is comprehensive, sound and good and we are always looking to improve it.”

“All children deserve a quality education,” said Plainedge’s Director of Special Education, Mona Tobin.

William Bolton, superintendent of schools in Copaigue agreed: “We have children in public schools today that would never have been placed in public school when I began my career in education” he said. “But with the kind of support services we provide now-one-on-one aides, full-time nurse, bus monitors and special transportation to name a few-they have become our responsibility. If it were my child I would want it that way because I would want them to have the enjoyment of a normal educational experience with their peers.”

What school officials wrestle with is not the question of should these services be provided, but how to pay for them without overburdening the local taxpayer. “The brutal reality is that it is very expensive,” said Bolton.

Special education in the United States changed drastically with passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which was later modified into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975. According to that law, all children are entitled to “a free appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.”

Under the law, children with disabilities are required to receive the same educational experience as other children. School districts are required to pro vide specially designed services, instructions or programs to meet the needs of students with disabilities and modifications to the programs or the school environment. These individual educational programs or IEPs help ensure that the students not only get what they need to succeed academically, but that they also are able interact with their peers as much as possible.

IDEA lists 13 categories that qualify a child for special education services: autism, deafness, deaf-blindness, hearing impairment, mental retardation, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, serious emotional disturbance, specific learning disability, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury and visual impairment including blindness. When a child is classified as disabled, the local education agency (i.e. the school district where the child resides) is required to provide services, accommodations, equipment, instructors or whatever is deemed necessary to provide the child with a free appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.

According to statistics from the New York State Education Department, more than 7 billion dollars was spent on special education services during the 2002-03 school year by New York State public school districts. This yields an average of $17,818 spent per special education student. By comparison, almost 21 and one half billion dollars was spent on general education students during the same year, which averages out to $7,595 spent per general education student or less than half on the amount spent per special ed student. Statewide, about 12 percent of the student population is classified as needing special education services. Locally, the eleven districts covered by the Massapequa Post, Amityville Record and Babylon Beacon spend about $8,100 per general education student and about $20,000 per special ed student.

“When the special education laws were passed in the 1970s, the federal government promised states a 40 percent reimbursement,” said Massapequa Superintendent Maureen Flaherty. “The reimbursement has only been about eight to ten percent. Therefore, the cost of the laws, fall on the homeowners.”

A common misconception is that these student services deal strictly with helping children who are struggling educationally. In fact, special ed money is spent on a wide variety of services such a speech, physical and occupational therapy, transportation and tuition reimbursements to out-of-district programs such as BOCES, special education teachers, teacher aides, home instruction, psychological services, technological devices such as microphones or audio equipment for children with hearing impairments, nursing and other health-care services. Districts may also have to hire paraprofessionals who can communicate with hearing impaired students using sign language, provide medical assistance as required or other medical or physical needs that have to be met for the child during the regular school day. Sometimes, those costs can be very high. For example, a child with a debilitating disease can cost a district more than $100,00 per school year.

School districts are required to pay for all of these costs, even if the child attends a private school and

they are not reimbursed through individual health insurance programs or plans that would normally assume some of these costs outside of the school environment.

Another major change to special education and general education occurred with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. The law, which resulted from educational proposals made by President George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign, was signed into law by Bush and received bipartisan support in Congress. The law expects all students to graduate high school. To help ensure that goal is achieved in every school district across the country, the law requires additional student testing, improved teacher quality and school choice for parents of children in failing schools. And, while the goals are laudable say many school officials, they have been hoisted on school districts with little or no additional federal funding to pay the costs associated with them. And, they apply to all students, including those with special educational needs.

Nonetheless, school districts scrambled to come up with a plan to meet the new challenges.

“When the No Child Left Behind Act was passed, we reevaluated our program,” said Lindenhurst Superintendent Neil Lederer, a supporter of the measure. “We looked at the needs of the children and felt that the instructional program was not meeting their needs.”

In particular, he said, the district recognized that some special education students were being taught by special education teachers not curriculum-specific teachers such as those teaching the rest of the student population in math or science. As a result, the district expanded inclusion classes at the high school and the middle school giving special ed students the opportunity to be taught by teachers who are experts in the various disciplines.

“This also gives special education teachers the ability to modify the curriculum to the special ed students,” said Lederer. “We’ve had great success with it.”

Similar changes have been made in other districts. In Plainedge, for example, smaller class sizes have helped the district reach its goals.

“We structure smaller classes so that there is a lower ratio of teachers to students, which allows the teachers to spend more time with each student. For students who need smaller class size and more teacher support,” Special Education Director Monica Tobin said.

The district has 15 students a teacher and an aide in those classes. For students with autism the district has provide a teacher and two teacher aides to every six students.

“Our high school programs are geared to students earning a regents diploma and our special ed students do quite well on regents exams,” she said.

To help defray some of the costs of special education as students move through the district, educators have found that providing services early on in a student’s academic career saves money as they move to higher grades. An example of this is Plainedge’s autistic program called CHAMPS.

“It really meets the needs of the autistic students,” said Tobin.

“We spend money in prevention and put efforts into our early childhood program,” said Flaherty. “This helps children and the level of services needed is not as great.”

Massapequa also has an autistic program at its elementary level and teacher training, the Wilson Reading Program, as well as an extended day kindergarten to help students with special needs.

“Some issues are reading issues,” said Flaherty. “By addressing these issues, we’ve seen very strong results in our literacy program. Our extended day kindergarten is also highly successful. We’ve given the children the essentials while holiday down staffing costs.”

Consolidating the services of successful programs such as CHAMPS and offering them to other districts also cuts costs by making them available at a cost that is lower than if each district implemented it while at the same time offsetting the cost of the district providing the services.

“By creating such a good program, we are able to not only save the costs of sending our students out of the district but we receive money from the other districts who send us their students,” pointed out Tobin.

Lederer said that his district also tries to provide its students with services within the district.

“We’re always looking to not only service our children in district as well as take in other students,” he said adding that the district has had success with its 8:2:1 inclusion program, which is eight children to one teacher with two aides. “This may cost us less than $100,000. for all the students for the whole year while sending one child to BOCES costs about $60,000, which would make our costs about a half million dollars.” said Lederer. “Of course, if a student needs out-of-district placement, we will provide it.”

General education teachers can also be very helpful in providing special ed students with the education they need. Often it is a general education teacher that identifies a child who is struggling and determines what the child needs. Districts are relying upon general education teachers to make an early diagnosis, as well as provide the services that special ed students need in an inclusion setting.

“We have excellent general education teachers in Plainedge,” said Tobin. “They give the kids what they need and work very hard to meet all of the standards. All of our personnel work together.”

“We have effective use of our instructional personnel. Often they determine why a child is struggling and what the child needs. They help do a good job in making early determinations,” said Flaherty.

The experts predict that the costs of special education in each district will likely keep increasing. With better diagnostics, newer information, and an increased focus on educational reforms, more demands will be made on districts to help the special education student to achieve and move into adulthood with the educational and social skills they need to become productive members of society, which in the long run is a most cost effective and socially responsible approach. As one administrator said, “Special education kids get a lot of support, but if they could do without the support they wouldn’t be special education students.”



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