Recently, the District 200 school board approved a budget that included $10 million for special education costs. At a board meeting, the district’s financial officer attributed $3 million of this budget to costs for private special ed placements, where a student whose special ed needs cannot be met by the school district is enrolled at a private school at the district’s expense.
The story did not indicate how many OPRF special ed students are represented by this $3 million figure. However, the average cost of a private special ed placement is $20-$30,000, with higher costs (more rarely) for students with more severe disabilities. In other words, Dist. 200 appears to be sending away up to as many as 100 or more of its approximately 470-500 special ed students to private school special ed placements each year-possibly as much as 20 percent or more of its special ed student body. Why?
Nationally, the percentage of special ed students in private placements in this country is closer to 2-4 percent, according to the Progressive Policy Institute (quoting figures from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics). In Illinois, private special ed placements represented 2 percent of all Illinois special ed students during the 2005-2006 school year, according to an estimate from the Illinois State Board of Education. The average cost of an Illinois private special ed placement (paid for by public funds) in fiscal year 2006 was just under $14,000, according to information published on ISBE’s website.
So why are OPRF’s figures so very much higher? It is well known that private special ed placements increase where a school district’s special ed services are poor. The law provides that a public school district can either provide the accommodations and services described in the child’s IEP (special ed individualized education program) or it can pay the tuition necessary for the child to attend a private school. In a district that refuses to reform its special ed practices, many parents pursue private placements from the start, even though they would prefer to educate their special needs child locally. They are reluctant to expose their child to a school environment that is hostile to their needs.
Although I don’t have a child in a private special ed placement, I can attest that OPRF’s special ed services are poor, at least with respect to students with specific learning disabilities. These students are traditionally in the largest and lowest-cost group because they can be mainstreamed with classroom accommodations. Unfortunately, it has been my experience-and I have heard from many District 200 parents-that these students’ IEPs often go ignored at OPRF. Services and accommodations are not provided, and the Special Ed Department does not intervene with the rest of the OPRF community on these students’ behalf. Regular ed teachers and division heads do not appear to understand their obligations to these students and as a result often do not comply with classroom accommodations that are required by law.
Although some private placements will always be needed for students with exceptional needs, I strongly believe that Dist. 200 could control its special ed budget, including its private placement costs. How? By overhauling its Special Ed Division so parents are not discouraged from keeping their special needs child at home by training its administrators, regular ed faculty, and division heads to comply with the special ed laws so that simple accommodations can be provided at no or little additional cost. For example, OPRF refuses to require its teachers to maintain written syllabuses for their classes-a simple measure that could, in and of itself, help numerous special ed students and eliminate the need for some special ed accommodations altogether.
Why not brainstorm on these issues and come up with manageable solutions? Why resist compliance and allow OPRF special ed and regular ed staff to continue to flout the special ed and disabilities laws, necessitating outplacements and driving up costs for taxpayers?
Compliance is so much cheaper.