Stories and Grievances: Special Education
Public Schools Push Mainstreaming to Cut Costs
Advocates for the disabled have long promoted the inclusion of special-education children in regular classes, a practice called mainstreaming. Many educators view mainstreaming as an antidote to the warehousing of children with special needs in separate, and often deficient, classrooms and buildings. Now, some experts and parents complain that mainstreaming has increasingly taken on a new role in American education: a pretext for cost-cutting, hurting the children it was supposed to help. In NYC, taxpayer money goes to Tweed officials, who make very, very comfortable salaries above $190,000. For what? In service to whom?
From the Editor:
As a parent of a daughter with special needs and as an advocate for special needs children and their parents, I have seen the corruption and fraud in New York City and around the US not only as an education reporter and researcher, but as an advocate/parent/whistleblower. Joel Klein, the "Chancellor" of the New York City public school system, sees no need to give to children with special needs any of the supporting services listed on the Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) drawn up by people who work in "Special Education". Kids who need expensive related services, full-time paraprofessionals, and other personnel in the school during the school day are not getting them, but the school psychologist or the 'specialist' working for the district's Committee on Special Education (CSE) will insist that the child is receiving a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Out of the room, this person will make sure that the child is suspended to a site where no services are given, or simply mainstreamed in an over-sized classroom.
My daughter needed assistive technology for Central Auditory Processing Disorder problems, and the NYC BOE took care of her by ripping up her IEP, writing a new one with no services and with her being de-certified, signing the name of the AP for Special Education at her high school, Stuyvesant, on the parent line as if Mr. Jay Biegelson was her father, and by never telling me. This is a very easy way to get rid of a student, especially if the student starts failing, as my daughter did, and the administration then quickly expells the student, as Stuyvesant did, all without telling the parent, (me), as Stuyvesant's administration did. As it turned out, the AP for Guidance, Gene Blaufarb, is the dad of the former AP at P811M, Jonathan Blaufarb, who was assisting the Principal Mr. Phil Santise in stealing the money of the shadow students at Booker T. Washington MS 54, a process exposed by me on June 5, 2001. Birdie Blake-Reid, the mother of the woman who was then Assistant AP of Guidance, Eleanor Archie, set up the MS 54 PTA Review Committee that attacked me for writing the report and called me a liar, child abuser and thief to silence me about special education fraud and corruption in NYC. Ms. Archie replaced Gene Blaufarb in 2003, and then expelled my daughter without telling her or me.
So, in New York your child will have a choice: either be dumped into a general education classroom without supporting services, called mainstreaming, be dumped into a "restricted environment classroom where you will receive no academic or supportive services, or be dumped into a suspension site without supporting services. Either way, the school will tell you, "sorry, but we dont have the money to give your child what he or she needs".
Schools Accused of Pushing Mainstreaming to Cut Costs
By JOHN HECHINGER, The Wall Street Journal
December 14, 2007; Page A1
GREECE, N.Y -- For years, Jonathan Schuster's mother begged the public schools here to put her son in a special program where he could get extra help for his emotional problems. By 11th grade, Jonathan had broken his hand punching a wall and been hospitalized twice for depression -- once because he threatened to kill himself with a pocket knife.
But teachers insisted that Jonathan, who suffers from attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities and bipolar disorder, could get by in regular classrooms. His mother, Kathleen Lerch, says the reason was cost. "It was all about the bottom line," she says. Citing confidentiality, school officials declined to discuss Jonathan's case but said they seek to provide an appropriate education to all children.
Advocates for the disabled have long promoted the inclusion of special-education children in regular classes, a practice called mainstreaming. Many educators view mainstreaming as an antidote to the warehousing of children with special needs in separate, and often deficient, classrooms and buildings.
Now, some experts and parents complain that mainstreaming has increasingly taken on a new role in American education: a pretext for cost-cutting, hurting the children it was supposed to help. While studies show that mainstreaming can be beneficial for many students, critics say cash-hungry school districts are pushing the practice too hard, forcing many children into classes that can't meet their needs. Inclusion has evolved into "a way of downsizing special education," says Douglas Fuchs, a Vanderbilt University education professor.
Districts have a powerful motivation to cut special-education costs. U.S. schools spend almost twice as much on the average disabled student as they do on a nondisabled peer, according to a 2004 federal study. But the study also found that, in recent years, per-student special-education costs rose more slowly than for the general population. One of the likely reasons, researchers found, was cost savings from mainstreaming.
In 2003, Fairfax County, Va., an affluent Washington, D.C., suburb, hired Gibson Consulting Group to study its special-education program. Gibson, a firm specializing in education, says it has saved clients millions of dollars by "improving productivity and eliminating inefficiencies." The firm's president, Greg Gibson, says mainstreaming nearly always saves money because regular classrooms have fewer teachers per student.
Gibson found that Fairfax spent an average of $14,671 per special-education student in all types of classrooms -- 85% more than for a pupil in general education. At 21 special-education centers, the per-student cost was even higher: $22,195. Mr. Gibson estimated that the district, which currently has a $2.2 billion school budget, could save $229 million through 2015 by closing 16 of the centers and taking other steps to teach more disabled children in regular classrooms.
Fairfax shut down the centers, prompting some parent protests. Fairfax officials acknowledge that the moves reduced costs, but say that children are better off in mainstream classrooms. They would not specify how much has been saved but said it was far less than Mr. Gibson's projections because special-ed students have received additional support.
Robert MacMillan, chair of the special-education department at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, says the Plymouth, Mass., public schools are currently cutting costs by moving students from separate centers -- either public ones operated by multiple districts or private facilities -- back into community schools and, where possible, into regular classrooms.
'For the Kids'
Cheryl Jacques, director of Plymouth's Pilgrim Academy, a separate public center primarily for students with emotional and behavioral problems, says her center's enrollment is dropping because districts are trying to be "economically responsible." Though she supports bringing students back to local schools if the children are ready, in some cases districts are likely "keeping kids that don't belong there," she says. Pilgrim charges districts $24,000 a year for each student. At Plymouth's public schools, the average cost of a special-education student runs $13,343. Bruce Cole, Plymouth's director of special education, counters: "I do what's best for the kids."
In the Greece Central School District, with 13,000 students, the push for more mainstreaming began in 1998. That year, Steven Walts, a former Maryland schools administrator, took over as superintendent in this middle-class suburb near Rochester, N.Y., where many work for Eastman Kodak Co. and Xerox Corp.
At the time, Mr. Walts was under pressure from New York state to include more disabled children in regular classrooms. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that students be taught, when possible, in the "least restrictive" environment.
Since Congress started pushing for mainstreaming more than a quarter century ago, many academic studies have found that the practice helps children with disabilities make academic and social gains. The two largest federal studies, each examining the records of 11,000 disabled school-age children, concluded that while failure rates rose, mainstreamed students overall tended to have higher grades and test scores than their counterparts in separate classes.
In Greece, Mr. Walts slashed the number of students referred to special outside schools, cutting separate classrooms and limiting "resource rooms," or learning centers for students with disabilities.
From 1998 to 2005, the percentage of Greece special-education students considered fully included -- spending 80% or more of their day in general education classes -- more than tripled, to 71%, far exceeding the national average of 54%. The number of students receiving special services at all fell below state and federal averages, to 8% from 15%.
Special-education budgets plummeted, too. Between the 1998-99 and 2004-05 school years, Greece reduced its spending on programs for disabled students by 26%, to $13.1 million from $17.6 million. Spending on special education dropped to 8% from 15% of total expenditures.
Upset at what they describe as the district's increasing refusal to provide services, a group of parents began meeting and comparing notes. They suspected that the district was effectively mainstreaming by simply capping the number of students eligible for services. Some children who were classified as special-education students were declassified and placed in regular classrooms with little or no additional help.
Mr. Walts left Greece in 2005 to become superintendent of the Prince William County public schools in Maryland. His office referred questions to Keith Imon, an administrator who also worked with Mr. Walts in Greece. Mr. Imon says Mr. Walts's office never directed employees to deny needed services or set quotas on classifying students as disabled. "I can say without a doubt that he makes all decisions based on what's in the best interests of the kids," says Mr. Imon.
Some school officials agreed with parents' concerns. Josephine Kehoe, who served as interim superintendent after Mr. Walts's departure, says principals told her that before she took over, they felt "pressure to spend the least amount of money possible" on special education.
In 2005, eight families, including Jonathan Schuster's, filed a lawsuit, accusing Greece of denying disabled children a "free appropriate public education" by restricting access to special classrooms, eliminating students' special-education eligibility and dumping them in regular classes.
The suit, which became a class action in U.S. District Court in Rochester, cited a 17-year-old 11th-grader with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. The student, identified only by the initials "K.B.," made the honor roll when receiving instruction in a separate, 15-student class. But when placed in a regular classroom in the 2004-05 school year, K.B. got failing grades, the suit says.
To settle the lawsuit, the families and the school district agreed to appoint Margaret McLaughlin, a special-education professor at the University of Maryland, as a joint expert to evaluate the district's program. After examining documents and conducting extensive interviews, Prof. McLaughlin says she was "quite stunned" by how much cost was influencing the push toward mainstreaming.
"It was, boom, one year, the kid was in a private placement and the next year he was dumped into a regular school with really limited support," she says.
In a legal settlement in August, the district acknowledged no deficiencies but agreed to place no limit on the number of students who would be placed in separate programs or receive other services. Under the consent decree, the number of separate classrooms with eight students and a teacher and an aide would increase from nine in the 2006-07 school year to a dozen in 2007-08. Already, since the 2004-05 school year, the percentage of students in fully inclusive classrooms has declined to 59% from 71%.
Steven Achramovitch, who became superintendent in November 2006, declined to discuss the lawsuit's allegations or Prof. McLaughlin's conclusions. Over the past year, the district has hired about 35 new special-education teachers, a 25% increase, and added $3 million to the 2006-07 school year's $14 million special-education budget. "It's going to be more costly, no question about it," he says. Mr. Achramovitch adds that the moves are unconnected to the lawsuit. "We'll do whatever is in the best interests of our kids," he says.
Deborah Hoeft, Greece's special-education director, says district surveys show that most parents of disabled children are pleased with the system's services.
Example of Success
Amid the controversy, Greece received national attention last year when Jason McElwain, then a 17-year-old senior with autism, scored 20 points in the last four minutes of a high-school basketball game. Jason met President Bush, and school officials hailed the student as an example of the success of including disabled children in school-wide activities.
Some parents praise recently added programs. Sharon Eddy says her son Ryan, now a fifth-grader, floundered in mainstream classes until third grade, when he transferred into a separate autism class with only eight children. The new setting "has been wonderful," she says.
But others say the district is still denying services in the name of mainstreaming. Christine Latus, a former elementary-school teacher, says her son Michael, a fifth-grader with dyslexia, needs a separate, specialized program either within the district or at a local private school for children with learning problems. Instead, the system has placed 10-year-old Michael in a mainstream classroom with 30 students, 12 of whom have special needs.
On a recent morning, Lisa Farina, Michael's teacher, asked him to stand in front of the class since he had grasped the meaning of a graph during a smaller discussion. At first, Michael froze, his eyes downcast. Then, he muttered a few nearly inaudible words about his findings.
At home after school that day, Michael, even with the help of a computer, struggled to write 10 sentences about a book he had read. "In reading, we're not getting too much help, except when we go into the smaller group," he said.
Michael's reading lags behind his peers by at least two grade levels. On a homework assignment this year, analyzing a political cartoon, Michael wrote in a nearly indecipherable scrawl: "The message seas that the it dos not wreak."
Ms. Farina says she won't discuss individual students. But she says she has full-time help from a special-education instructor, as well as visits from other support staff. She says the school doesn't have enough students for a special class for dyslexia. She says students receive individual attention, working in groups of six to eight.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Schuster, the student whose mother sought help for his emotional problems, says the school system should have pulled him out of mainstream classrooms much earlier.
Around the time the lawsuit was filed, the Greece schools agreed to put Jonathan in a separate class especially for children with emotional problems. He settled down and graduated -- though with a 2.0 grade point average. Now 19 years old, Jonathan lives at home and works in a supermarket stockroom.
"It was too late," Jonathan says. "I don't feel I met my full potential."
Write to John Hechinger at email@example.com
18 Ed Dept. bigs making at least 190G
BY ERIN EINHORN, DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER, Tuesday, December 18th 2007, 12:26 PM
Educrat Marcia Lyles and Chancellor Joel Klein both make over $200,000 - more than the police commissioner.
Eighteen city education honchos were making more than $190,000 a year when classes began this September - up from just two last year, a Daily News salary analysis found.
That's more than Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta and the commissioners of major city departments like Health, Housing and Children's Services, who all make $189,700.
The top execs at the Education Department's Tweed Courthouse headquarters are among only 28 noncourt officials in all of city government who have cracked the $190,000 line. Most of the others are deputy mayors.
"Tweed is too top-heavy," said William McDonald, who heads a citywide group of elected parent leaders. "I don't know what it is these people are doing, but it doesn't seem to be getting down to the kids."
One of the 18 execs has since dropped to part-time status, but even with her out of the mix, the total number drawing salaries above $180,000 has surged to 36 from 20 in September 2006.
"Given their responsibilities, the salaries are appropriate," schools spokesman David Cantor said. "You're talking about the top managers of an agency that employs 140,000 people and educates 1.1 million children."
He pointed out that the number of managers making more than $150,000 dipped from 204 early in the year to 194 in September.
School officials yesterday could not provide details on total administrative salary costs this year compared with last year. A consultant hired to cut fat claims $170 million that once went to the bureaucracy is going to classrooms.
Most of the pay increase was part of a one-year 6.5% bump that went to most city managers last year. That's compared with the 2% increase teachers collected from October 2006 to this October.
The total cost of paying the top 100 people on the school payroll surged by 7.3% from September 2006 to this September.
Those 100 execs cost nearly $18 million.
"It's way too much," said Carlton Richardson, a member of the elected Community Education Council in Brooklyn's District 18. "They need to filter that money down to schools."
City Council Education Committee Chairman Robert Jackson said he has "no problem with paying people a good salary as long as they produce."
But school officials, he said, are leading a system where only 50% of kids earned an on-time diploma last year.
"Overall, as a system, that's failure," he said.
With Tina Moore and Benjamin Lesser
gadfly22 Dec 18, 2007 7:42:30 AM
Same old story with the Bloomberg/Klein Dept. of Ed: hire overpaid consultants who churn out piles of reports. Also, put a bunch of ex-lawyers and MBAs in top jobs at Tweed. It all adds up to out of touch educrats calling the shots.
Calico Dec 18, 2007 9:25:54 AM
It's what I've been saying for a long time, we need an overhaul from top to bottom in NYC Gov't. We must put an end to wasteful, frivolous spending in all departments agencies, etc., including MTA. There's no accountability & everyone is stealing & mismanaging public funds & giving money away to their cronies. The cronies of the elected officials are bleeding us all dry & NOT ONE elected official has the guts to stand up for the citizens & put a stop to the corruption. Enough is finally enough. Why are no Borough Presidents or council people or congresspeople doing anything to end this corruption? Mailing pay checks to relatives checks they don't work but stay home! Paying $8 for a black garbage bag & paying non-existing employees for school contractors! ARE THEY ALL CROOKED???
sugartime Dec 18, 2007 11:00:29 AM
Education is running almost as huge a racket as the insurance industry and Joel Klein is practically a terrorist by the way he holds the city hostage for his king's ransom!
dblue31 Dec 18, 2007 11:16:12 AM
The reason why they dont do anything is because how do you think they get their relatives and significant others jobs? and while we are at it what is the actual use of a borough president aside from handing out diplomas and have press conferences? you want to eliminate waste, get rid of 5 borough presidents and their staffs, you save on just the beep salary 190x5 plus their cronies and drivers and such. And why does manhattan need a Borough President anyway, City Hall is in Manhattan. Another job to eliminate is the Public Adovcates office, what does this person exactly do? Oh thats right sit in City Council meetings, oh I forgot they arent legally required to do that either anymore.
From their lofty perches
Education officials have some of the highest salaries in city government, with 18 executives now making more than $190,000. Among them are:
Joel Klein, chancellor $250,000
Marcia Lyles, deputy chancellor for teaching and learning $203,000
Chris Cerf, deputy chancellor for organizational strategy, human capital and external affairs $196,575
Kathleen Grimm, deputy chancellor for financial affairs $196,574
Jim Liebman, chief accountability officer $196,575
Eric Nadelstern, CEO, Empowerment Schools Network $196,575
JoEllen Lynch, CEO, Partnership Support Office $196,575
Ted Brodheim, chief information officer $193,125
Special education costs rise as federal aid falls
Meaghan M. McDermott, Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle Staff writer with reader comments
December 2, 2007
Peter Michael Grugnale's second-grade class at Greece's Parkland Elementary School has only five other students, one teacher and one teaching assistant.
The 7-year-old, who is autistic and nonverbal, has his own full-time, one-on-one aide during school days. And a multitude of other specialists are involved in his education â€” physical, behavioral, speech and occupational therapists, counselors, social workers and aides.
On average, schools spend about three times as much per pupil educating special education students as they do educating those who don't need special services.
Last year alone, the federal government failed to pay New York districts more than $900 million in funding for the kinds of services that help students like Peter. In Greece, that shortfall amounted to nearly $4 million; in Webster, as much as $2 million; in Brighton, $1 million; and in West Irondequoit, also $1 million.
This year, it looks as if the federal government will do the same â€” not pay its agreed-upon share of the bill for programs it mandates.
Special education services are a civil right, and any argument over the services is not about whether high-needs children should be educated, but rather over who should pick up the tab, said Jody Siegle, executive director of the Monroe County School Boards Association. She estimated that at least 20 percent of every school budget goes for special education services.
With school budgets and property taxes rising faster than inflation, the federal government should live up to its promise and fully fund services for special-needs children, she said.
"The original law and every reauthorization passed since has provided that the government would pay 40 percent of the costs for special education, but they've never even come close to doing that," Siegle said. "The most they ever did was 18 percent a couple of years ago, and it's been going down since."
Meanwhile, the demand for special education is on the rise, given medical advances that have led to longer lives for high-needs students, better and earlier diagnoses of disabilities and changes in teaching methods and theory that tailor instruction to each child's needs.
"The expenses associated with special education go far beyond the teacher," said William Domm, assistant superintendent for business and personnel in the West Irondequoit Central School District.
"There's a whole assortment of ancillary services: one-to-one aides, occupational and physical therapy, art therapy, music therapy... . Some students need a nurse. Some are unable to ride the bus with general education students, and we provide special buses and aides on those buses."
Peter starts his day on one of those special buses, riding with other high-needs students and an aide. He doesn't like to be touched and is sometimes prone to outbursts of screaming. Peter has tics, a compromised immune system, other medical problems and a host of environmental allergies, and he must stick to a strict diet free of gluten, casein (a protein in dairy products), soy and corn.
In school, his day begins with a breakfast game in which he communicates by retrieving pictures of the items he'd like. He has speech therapy every day to try to teach him to talk. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he has occupational therapy. Tuesdays and Fridays, it's physical therapy. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, there's music therapy. And in between, he works with his teacher on learning letters and numbers and other lessons.
"They're also helping him move to some assistive technologies," said Peter's father, Paul Grugnale, 48, a manager with Buckman's Car Wash. "He uses a voice box to enhance communication so that if he wants something in school, he has to hit a button on the screen that shows what he wants and the box says the words."
Paul and his wife, Kathy Bovenzi, 47, a stay-at-home mom, are working with Medicaid to get a similar box for their home.
Under state and federal law, the school experience of a special education student such as Peter must be planned out in a document called an Individualized Education Plan, which takes into account where the child stands academically, emotionally, psychologically and physically. It sets individual goals for learning and specifies which services the school district will provide to meet the child's unique needs.
Grugnale and Bovenzi meet monthly with school specialists and social workers to measure Peter's progress and talk about ways to reinforce his advances.
"He makes small steps; he's not standing still and he's not going backward," said Grugnale. "But there haven't been any 'wow' moments."
According to state Education Department figures, the per-pupil instructional cost for special education services in Greece â€” as in most districts in Monroe County â€” is nearly three times the cost for general education students: $19,821 per pupil compared with $7,149.
"Special ed will never be a cheap endeavor," said Carla Piccarreto, an organizer of the Greece-based Parent Advocates for Students with Special Needs. Piccarreto's 17-year-old son, James, is autistic and requires school services such as speech and language therapy, a one-on-one aide and extra in-school help with his coursework.
As Grugnale sees it, the cost for Peter's education doesn't matter to him and shouldn't to anyone else.
"If we don't put the time, money and effort into it now, we'll pay later," he said. "The more mainstreamed into society and more productive a life a person can have, the better."
However, he said, he didn't always feel that way.
"If I didn't have Peter, I wouldn't understand," he said. "I don't think other people understand."
Special education in the 13,500-student Greece district came under heightened scrutiny in 2005, when parents filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the district didn't do enough for special education students.
Staff changes made this year as part of a settlement in that case reflect the high cost of special education. The district added 38.8 special education and speech teaching positions at roughly $61,000 each, 6.4 social worker and psychologist positions at about $49,000 each, 7.8 occupational and physical therapy positions at $55,000 each, and 17.8 teaching assistant positions at about $14,400 each. The total additional cost: $3,344,206, not including benefits, said Lou Alaimo, Greece's school business administrator.
In teacher Kim Andracki's classroom at Greece's Buckman Heights elementary school, the eight-member class often breaks into two groups of four and each group gets its own instructor. The kids ” who range in grade level from third to fifth ” get one-on-one time with Andracki and teaching assistant Lisa Whitman, who help them stay on task, work through their emotions, stick to routines and establish behavioral goals.
"Our goal is to be successful and have our students eventually move into regular education classes," said Andracki.
Some of her students already join regular general education classes for math and other lessons.
Deborah Hoeft, Greece's executive director of special education, said some students may need only services such as extra help with reading, while others can require help along a scale of services that extends all the way to out-of-district and residential placements.
In Greece, at least 70 students also are placed in specialized programs at the Board of Cooperative Educational Services or other public or private schools, with their home district picking up tuition costs.
Alaimo said those tuitions range from about $21,000 for a program for cognitive disabilities at the School of the Holy Childhood in Henrietta to more than $39,000 for a placement at St. Joseph's Villa in Greece for students with behavioral and emotional challenges.
Depending on a student's needs, those costs can run much higher. For example, according to the state Education Department, tuition at the residential state School for the Blind in Batavia can top $100,000 per year.
"You really can have just a few very high-cost students come into your district and have a huge impact on your cost per pupil," said Howard Maffucci, superintendent of the East Rochester Central School District. "But the guiding philosophy is that every child has that right to a universal free and appropriate public education."
In his district, the cost of special education rose nearly $5,800 per student between 2000 and 2004.
A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision could make special education even more costly.
In October, the justices upheld a lower court's ruling that a New York public school district must reimburse parents who sent their special-needs son to a private school without first trying programs offered in the public schools.
Picking up the tab
According to the National Education Association, the federal government shorted states more than $13 billion in special education funding last year.
President Bush's 2008 budget proposal called for a reduction in special education funding of about $300 million, while Congress' proposal called for an increase of about $1.3 billion. President Bush vetoed the education appropriations bill on Nov. 13.
Since 1975, when Congress passed the law â€” now known as the I