It’s the highest in the nation on a per pupil basis, about 1.6 times what we spend per general education kid. Why? In large part because we educate our most fragile children outside of their local home districts, which adds both educational and transportation costs. In fact, N.J. educates 10% of our kids with disabilities in private and out-of-district placements, with no other state in the country even close. (Massachusetts is next at 7.2%.) The United States Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation cited N.J. as having highest proportion of kids in separate settings. (For more data, look at NJSBA’s extensive report on special education.)
So it should be no surprise that N.J.’s special education costs substantially top every other state in the country. And it should also be no surprise that the primary reason is all the redundancies and inefficiencies engendered by our 600 school districts. After all, if you want to have a class of, say, kids with an autism diagnosis, then you’ll need a half dozen of them to fill the class. But most districts are so small that they can’t come up with the cohort so they send the kids to another public district or a private school for kids with disabilities (Those schools are represented by ASAH, the non-profit that represents the 125 schools and agencies in the state that serve 11,000 kids.). Outside placement costs more than keeping the kid in the district. It also violates the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which mandates that children with special needs be educated in “the least restrictive environment.”
So what’s a DOE to do? Issue regulations, of course! And so it did, giving our new Executive County Superintendents vast powers to veto out-of-district placements and oversee each student’s Child Study Team, a group that includes a kid’s teachers, therapists, case manager, and parent. But the regulations issued by the DOE as part of the vast 6A legislation are against federal law. Details, details.
The New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform testified at a public hearing last month against the new regulations. The group “applaud(s) the language that focuses referrals and services and programs in local school districts” because this will “help advance the Department’s efforts to build local capacity and will help insure that special education services are delivered, to the maximum extent possible, in settings with typical students.” In other words, our current system unnecessarily segregates our children with special needs. But, continues the Coalition, the new regulations are “overly prescriptive” and “undermines the IDEA-mandated IEP (Individualized Education Plan) team decision-making process.” The end result will be to drive costs up even further.
On May 18th, Education Commissioner Lucille Davy issued a memo that sought to “clarify” the ECS’s role in student placement, and she backed off a bit. But not enough to satisfy the NJ Coalition, and the dispute will probably end up in court. As is often the case, the world of special education elucidates concerns in general education, reflecting up, in exaggerated form, problems that might pale in a typical field. Our special education students are segregated, cordoned off from higher-performing students. The residents of New Jersey spend too much money on education, for kids with disabilities and without. The DOE responds by issuing a plethora of regulations that do nothing to ease inefficiencies. Sound familiar?