Spec Ed & The P Word…

In Time, Maia Szalavitz takes a look at the school in the upcoming Forest Grove School District v. TA SCOTUS case and the larger issues.  John Roberts can continue moonlighting as a special education analyst because this is the third or fourth spec ed case since he joined the court…indicative of the nature of special ed law.    It’s too bad the school involved is somewhat sensational because that’s going to distract from the complicated underlying issue — whether parents should have to enroll a child with special needs in public school before being able to attend private school at public expense because the public schools are unable to provide an appropriate education.  

While the small D.C. voucher program has been getting a lot of Beltway attention, most people are unaware that federal, state, and local government spend billions of dollars annually on private placements for students.  It’s one part of what is a lot of public money that flows to private schools for books, technology, teacher training, Title I services and so forth.   In other words, don’t believe the hype:  Public funds and private schools are plenty entangled now and the idea of bright lines is a rhetorical fiction.  

In terms of special education, overall it’s a worthy effort.  Some students have special needs so acute that the public schools can’t be expected to serve them well.   Unfortunately, there is also abuse of the provisions that enable students with exceptional needs to go to school in a setting that works best for them.  Washington, D.C. is illustrative of that.   The city spends $200 million a year on private placements for special education, an amount that equals roughly $2800 per public school and public charter school student in the city.  There is a thriving industry in gaming the system. 

Still, the abuse shouldn’t overshadow the overall economics here or the need for provisions like this as part of special education.  In terms of this case, the concern of the school districts is not unreasonable at all, though they sure don’t help themselves or their case by the way some special education parents get treated.  Regardless, creating what would amount to a unilateral right to enroll your child in private school at public expense would be a costly decision and one likely to lead to a lot of gaming.   Special education due process may be, as one wag once put it, “nasty, brutish…. and often not very short,” and policymakers should endeavor to address that as much as possible within the context of what is a fundamentally adversarial law, yet some sort of public process is necessary here for decision-making.  The circuits are split though so this case will be interesting to watch.

By the way, there is an obvious school choice angle here.  But as I’ve written before, special education policy is a lousy venue to fight out choice questions.

3 Replies to “Spec Ed & The P Word…”

  1. The idea of bright lines is not quite a rhetorical fiction. I’ve argued in print that the history of special education is one of blurry lines (and that includes the pre-P.L. 94-142 era), and both construction and textbook relations are definitely of the district-vendor type (not entirely different from contracting out services for individual children). But the conventional wisdom of a strict divide between public and private has quite a bit of grounding in reality for most students and in most school activities.

  2. Special education placements notwithstanding, it’s somewhat misleading to suggest that “…a lot of public money…flows to private schools.” Private school students, teachers, and other education personnel receive services underwritten by public funds (which their families help to generate), but private schools do not receive money.

    As for the “entanglement” of public funds and private schools, it is the governmental entity that makes the final call on the manner in which public funds are used to provide the above-referenced services. Local and state educational agencies are required to engage private school officials in timely and meaningful consultation regarding the provision of services, but stewardship of funds is (with very rare exceptions) retained by the governmental entities.

  3. Andy-

    You continue to ignore the fact that districts run the IEP process, which makes your concern over perverse incentives greatly exaggerated.

    On the private placements in the District, let’s face it, DCPS doesn’t do much of anything terribly well, so they probably don’t provide FAPE well either. It’s not like they keep losing these lawsuits for no reason.

    The best way to put a stop to lawsuits and $200,000 placements is a voucher program that gives whomever wants out the average amount spent on them in the public system.

    Districts have been claiming for decades that they don’t get enough money for special education. They claim that they shift massive resources out of general ed into special ed.

    How then can they complain when someone offers a kid a scholarship absent these subsidies and the opportunity to transfer? Fewer lawsuits, fewer Cadillac placements, happier kids and parents, less shifting of funds out of general ed.

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