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The New York Sun

 

Freston as Scapegoat

November 08, 2007

By Jay P. Greene

Concerns about rising special education enrollments and stagnant student achievement have sharpened the public debate on private placement, the practice of placing disabled students in private schools at public expense when it has been determined that the public system is unable to address that student’s needs.

Some see private placement as the culprit, draining public schools of needed resources for frivolous claims. But this scapegoating is a distraction from the real problems and waste that plague our public schools. The issue came to a head last month when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered New York City schools to pay for the private school tuition of a disabled student, identified as Tom F.

In this case, The New York City Board of Education v. Tom F., Tom F. is the son of Thomas Freston, the former Viacom executive and a centimillionaire. New York City fought this case all the way to the Supreme Court because, the city alleged, paying the private school tuition of disabled students was diverting significant resources from the public school system that was already struggling to educate everyone else.

It’s easy — but entirely incorrect — to portray this case, and by extension much of special education, as one in which financially-strapped public schools are forced to bend to the unreasonable demands of disabled students with savvy parents and high-priced lawyers.

The truth is that the placement of disabled students in private schools, both in New York and nationwide, is extremely rare and hardly places a financial burden on the public school system. Apologists for failing public schools distort cases such as Tom F. because it provides them with a convenient scapegoat for the rising costs and sub-par performance of too many public schools. But such distortion is only possible if people are unaware of some basic facts regarding private placement, special education, and school finances.

Very few students receive private placements. Nationwide, a total of 87,722 students out of the almost 49 million students in public education were placed in a private school at public expense to receive special education services in 2005. That is less than 0.2% of all students. In New York City there are only 1,889 “unilateral” private placements, where the child is in private school at the parents’ initiative, and fewer than 10,000 private placements in total. Four-fifths of the requests for private placement, though, come from the public schools. With more than a million students in New York City public schools, both figures represent a fraction of 1%.

Nor is it true that private placements are becoming increasingly common. In 2005 a total of 1.5% of all disabled students nationwide were taught in a private setting. In 1989 it was 1.6%. Private placement represents a tiny portion of total student enrollment and is not part of a rising trend.

The only way such a small number of private placements could pose a significant financial burden is if those placements were astronomically expensive relative to serving the same students in a public setting. Public school officials have suggested that they are.

The general counsel for New York City public schools, Michael Best asserted: “Paying for unilateral private placements is a substantial burden on the New York City schools, and we think it is a substantial burden nationally.” The Council of the Great City Schools, whose members include large school districts around the country, claimed that private placements cost public schools more than $5 billion. These claims are simply at odds with the facts. In analysis we published in the journal, Education Next, we used U.S. Department of Education data to calculate the cost that is associated with private placement. Our upper-bound estimate is that serving special education students in private schools costs public schools nationwide no more than $922 million — nowhere close to the $5 billion claimed by the Council. While $922 million sounds like a lot of money it actually represents less than one-quarter of 1% of total public school spending in America.

Even New York City’s own numbers demonstrate how small the financial burden is from private placement. The city claims that unilateral private placements cost $49.3 million. But with a total budget of almost $17 billion this represents less than 0.3% of their spending. Keeping in mind that the city spends more than $16,000 on the average student and even more on the average disabled student, the extra cost of placing those students in private schools represents less than 0.1% of New York City’s total public education budget.

In the case of Tom F., the $21,819 tuition at private school seems to be less than it would have cost to serve him in one of New York’s public schools. An administrative hearing officer determined on multiple occasions that the public schools were unable to serve his needs adequately, so his claim was hardly frivolous.

If the city and other school districts put as much energy into improving their special education offerings as it does using special education as a scapegoat, fewer students would need private placement in the first place.

Original Source: http://www.nysun.com/opinion/freston-as-scapegoat/66084/

 

 
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