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Out of District Placements NOW Newsworthy

July 29, 2014

For decades public schools have borne the costs required to provide special education students with a free and appropriate education (FAPE) in the “…least restrictive environment.” For most students with special needs this is not at all problematic. Special education teachers typically have the training required to develop and implement an individual education plan (IEP) for the vast majority of students and school boards can either hire staff or contract for related service providers to support students with specialized services like occupational therapy, speech therapy, and psychological support. Some students, however, have complicated needs that school districts cannot meet and, in those cases, the school district is required to provide the tuition costs and related costs for that child’s education. In most cases the costs for these programs are at least three times the per pupil costs incurred by an “average” student… and six digit costs have been in play for at least 20 years. In the five states where I served as Superintendent, the State government realized that it was difficult to impossible for a local district to absorb these additional costs to education the extraordinary students who required special programs and so they paid the majority of the costs, with some states providing as much as 95% reimbursement. This made sense since many of the students requiring these kinds of programs were formerly housed in state institutions that closed, sending the students back to their local communities.

In a majority of these out-of-district placements the student’s learning problems are severe and self-evident and both the parents and schools identify a mutually agreeable program and work collaboratively to develop a plan to provide transportation to and from the locale. In other cases, however, the districts assert that they can provide the free and appropriate education for the child in the district and the parents sue the district to seek the placement they desire. Districts are then placed in a position of determining whether to hire their own attorney to argue their case in front of an arbitrator and/or judge or to cede to the parents and pay for the placements themselves. This is often a lose-lose predicament for school districts. If they hire an attorney they can incur high legal fees that are often not reimbursable and, if they lose, they would be required to pay the legal fees of the parents. By “fighting” a placement districts can also engender ill-will in the parent community who will often rally around the parent whose child is being”denied the education they need”. If they don’t hire an attorney, they run the risk of setting a precedent that will require additional out of district costs and, possibly, scrutiny from the State who is often bearing the majority of the costs. Another complication is that districts are bound by confidentiality agreements, making it impossible for them to give a full public explanation of the nature of the complicated problems students have and/or the steps they have taken to ensure that each and every placement is warranted. Finally, the biggest problem with this whole placement issue is that it creates a situation where an individual student is viewed as a “cost-benefit” problem and not a programmatic one. It depersonalizes the student and increases the conflict among adults.

In my experience the largest percentage of contentious placement cases deal with emotionally handicapped students. In some cases these students are coping adequately in the school setting but acting out in the community or at home and, as a result, parents are seeking 24/7 oversight. There are many schools that offer therapies that are contrary to those acceptable to schools (e.g. wilderness expeditions that intentionally isolate students) or are unproven (e.g. animal husbandry programs). Some of these schools counsel parents on how to get districts to fund placements ex post facto and some even have de facto in house attorneys who assist them in “recruiting” students.

For years administrators have lamented this system that, in the end, is cost driven and also lamented the fact that these mandated costs for special education are driving budgets higher and, in some cases, squeezing out funds for non-special needs students and programs. Yesterday’s NYTimes and today’s Ohio.com breathlessly reported on the costs districts incurred as a result of these out of district placements, each report implicitly emphasizing the impact on taxpayers while glossing over the complicated background outlined above. While it is helpful to bring these costs to light, it would be extremely helpful if the reporting gave some context. Unfortunately no effort has been made to tease out the marginal cost/student that results from the federal mandate that all children receive a free and appropriate education. Worse,  the media have never emphasized the impact of the Federal government’s broken promise to provide 40% of the costs to education special education students and seldom reported on the impact on local funding when a state legislature decides to reduce their share of special education costs. MAYBE these articles could set the stage for that kind of reporting in the future.

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