Special ed's “real” cost to taxpayers

Advanced medical technology, older mothers, obesity, diabetes, binge drinking, smoking, fertility treatments may be some of the reasons for special ed's high costs today
Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools published a study on rising special education costs.

A step to understanding special ed costs

One group’s analysis of “real” cost to taxpayers

The ongoing budget crisis in the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District has focused taxpayer attention on the high cost of special education programs. Through this ongoing series, Cape Cod Today endeavors to exhibit many sides of a complex issue to its readers.

In December 2012 the Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools (MAAPS) published a study on rising special education costs and “the real cost” to state taxpayers. MAAPS is an association of Massachusetts private schools approved to provide out-of-district instruction for public school students, using public funds. When a special education student is placed “out of district” it is usually to one of these schools that the child is sent.

Severe Disabilities Increase

MAAPS reports that from 2002 to 2012 the number of students with “autism, health, communication and neurological impairments” increased by 33,536 while “specific learning disabilities” decreased by 30,423. During that same period the total number of children in Massachusetts special ed programs increased by only 8,475 students.

Why the increase in children with moderate to severe disabilities? MAAPS cites a 2001 report by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents which lays this increase at the feet of advanced medical technology, enabling the survival of many more children with disabilities. According to the report survival of babies with a birth weight below 3.3 pounds has increased from 52% in the 1980s to 90% today. With more children surviving pre-term birth, there is a higher are more kids attending public school who face significant disabilities.

The study cites reports by the Boston Globe that state:

Obesity, diabetes, binge drinking, smoking, pregnancies at advanced age, fertility treatments and use of elective caesarean deliveries have all contributed to the problem. Unfortunately, Massachusetts leads the nation in the proportion of births to women between the ages of 35 and 50. These are all factors which can all be mitigated with changes in public health and medical practice and hospitals in Massachusetts are now trying to limit caesarean births to those that are medically necessary.

How Are These Students Placed?

MAAPS reports that “It is the unique needs of the student and the severity of their disability which determine the intensity of services that are written into the IEP.” Chapter 766 requires that students with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment”.

Many students with low to moderate special needs can attend most of their school hours in a traditional classroom with additional support services.

When a child is considered for an IEP (Individual Education Plan), the schools staff must first consider if a child can be served in the regular classroom she would attend if not disabled. The state’s IPE Process Guide states that “an in-district placement should always be considered and recommended before out-of-district placement is considered.”

Out-of-district placement options can include a “collaborative” like the Cape Cod Collaborative or a private, accepted Chapter 766 school (C766 school) that is either a day program or a residential facility.

MAAPS asserts that students who end up in C766 schools are “among the most disabled and disadvantaged”. Such students typically have disabilities such as autism, mental illness, developmental, physical and multiple disabilities.

Costs of Collaborative or C766 Placement

The children we’re considering in this article are the ones with the most profound needs, so they also carry the highest costs. Reporting directly from the MAAPS report “The Operational Services Division (OSD) of the Executive Office of Administration and Finance oversees and regulates the financial operation of C766 schools, including the setting of school tuition rates. Due to the fact that the students in C766 schools are severely disabled, the program of services the students require can be costly. In fiscal year 2011, C766 day school tuition rates ranged from $32,000 to $125,000, with an average rate of $59,000. Residential school tuition rates ranged from $57,000 to $295,000, with an average of $169,000.”

Most school districts try to educate as many special needs kids in-district as possible, with Collaborative placement a fallback position. MAAPS position is that it is not always cheaper to educate in-house students with severe special needs.

Conclusions

Are private C766 school placements always the most affordable option for districts with high-need special ed students? Probably not. With that said, however, a careful reading of the MAAPS report indicates that, for students who need highly specialize services, the C766 schools might be a more effective option than using “collaborative” services.

When viewed in the context of exactly what they do, private C766 schools may be a less onerous option than trying to duplicate the programs of an established C766 school at a local school or in a collaborative.

To be sure, the collaboratives and local school districts contradict some of the conclusions in the MAAPS report. For example this 2009 report from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) holds that private special education day school placement can cost 60% more per pupil than collaborative day school programs.

In the 2009 report, DESE states that in Fiscal 2007 $134 million was spent state-wide on collaborative day schools, $276 million on private day schools and $145 million on private residential schools. The cost to transport some 8,835 students to each of these programs cost $77,344,380. In-district special education transportation for 47,354 students was $126,365,334 in Fiscal 2007.

The complexity of educating students with severe disabilities grows with each new medical breakthrough. The funding of such services is neither simple nor entirely straightforward. Local school districts must remain vigilant about costs while providing the services that they are legally required to provide – a situation unlikely to satisfy entirely either taxpayers or the parents of special needs children.

MAAPS Report’s “Bottom Line Findings”

For those deeply interested in the topic, we offer the MAAPS report’s “bottom line findings”:

1. Public school and educational collaboratives administrators erroneously claim that they can serve students at less cost than a C766 school can. This assertion is not based in fact and does not consider hidden costs to the taxpayer, differences in the severity of student disability, staff to student ratios and the length of the school year.

2. It would cost public school districts $80,000 per pupil, or $20,000 a year more, to provide the same level of services of a typical C766 day school at a cost of $59,000.

3. The only way in which a student could be served at less total cost by a public school or collaborative is by providing less service to the student.

4. Public school and collaborative salaries are generally 44% higher than C766 school salaries.

5. Massachusetts state taxpayers pay public school and collaborative fringe benefit costs at a rate of 36.72% of wages, compared to 23.54% for C766 schools.

6. Taxpayers subsidize public school district teacher and other professional educator pension payments by $107 million a year. This is a cost to the taxpayer which is not paid by school districts.

7. Taxpayers subsidize public school occupancy costs by $730.5 million a year. Again, this is a cost not paid by school districts

8. Taxpayers subsidize collaborative teacher pension payments by an estimated $8.5 million a year.

9. Collaboratives have an unfunded actuarially accrued retirement benefit liability to retirees which could be as high as $224 million.

10. There is little meaningful public accountability or transparency for collaborative costs.

11. In addition to educating students at significantly lower costs than public schools and collaboratives, C766 schools:

a. Tuition rates include all costs to the taxpayer

b. Receive no annual subsidy from the Commonwealth’s taxpayers

c. Contributed $25.3 million in private funds to subsidize public ed in FY ‘ 11 and over $300 million since 1990

d. Have no unfunded liability for retiree benefits

12. C766 schools attract over 1,600 students from all over the U.S. and the world due to their unparalleled expertise in providing highly specialized education and treatment. The tuition payments for these students make a net contribution of $189 million each year to the state economy – not derived from state taxpayers.


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