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New Jersey's High Numbers

The New Jersey Star-Ledger and an anonymous blogger in that state have put together a fascinating one-two punch examining special education practices in the state.

The newspaper article talks about the high price of districts providing private placements to students with disabilities. From my experience with special education advocates, I know many of them would grit their teeth at the idea that educating children with special needs is "out of control," but the numbers are pretty compelling.

In some cases, the higher costs associated with special-needs students are unexpected, throwing budgets into disarray.

"One individual could move into your community and could drastically alter the budget," said Peter Starrs, business administrator for the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District.

That's what happened in Montgomery Township, said Tom Venanzi, the school district's business administrator. In crafting a budget, the district underestimated the number of students who will require private schools, which offer more specialized programs. To accommodate those students, Montgomery officials must now find an additional $200,000, Venanzi said.

Montgomery budgeted about $22 million on general education programs for its 5,000 students. Another $5 million has been earmarked for 500 special-needs kids who are taught within the district. Private school tuition for just 40 other students will cost the district $3 million more, 20 percent higher than a year before.

Administrators agree the steady rise in private school tuition has been one of the most significant drivers of cost in special education.

The article goes on to say that 10 percent of New Jersey's population of students with disabilities are in private placements, a rate three times the national average. At least some administrators say that it's private school tuition, not the inherent cost of educating a child with disabilities "in house," that is driving costs.

And the blogger at NJ Left Behind, who identifies him- or herself as a member of a New Jersey school board, comes back with a great question: just why are so many children in New Jersey classified for special education, anyway?

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.

The issue that the blogger speaks of is disproportionality, or having more or fewer minority children in a disability category than their percentage in the population might predict. It's especially a concern in disability categories that have an element of administrator judgment to them, like mental retardation.

So it seems that if New Jersey wants to address funding issues, the state needs to attack both angles: is it possible to provide good district-based services for students with disabilities, and why are there so many in the first place?

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