Special education costs demand transparency

August 30, 2013

More than a year ago, the Cape Henlopen school board ques­tioned the cost of special educa­tion for a few Cape students. The Cape Gazette, in turn, began investigating the cost of services provided to special needs students in residential care.

All children are entitled to a free, appropri­ate public education; to get it, some children require intensive support services. Still, when, as our investigation found, the cost of residen­tial services rises to an average of more than $230,000 annually per child - in one case to an estimated $500,000 - taxpayers want to know what they are paying for.

After a year, we still have no clear answers.

District officials said they receive a bill for special education services from the Depart­ment of Education, and they pay it; they don’t know what services are provided. Department of Education officials insist the districts make contracts with providers, so it’s the school districts that monitor the costs.

In short, neither the districts nor the De­partment of Education can say what services they’re paying for, yet the bills for 17 students topped $7.6 million in 2012.

It’s not just a question of bureaucracy or mismanagement. Under state policy, educa­tion officials say, if an institution provides services to fewer than 15 students, officials can, to protect privacy, offer no specifics on services provided.

Is it any surprise, then, that there is only one facility in Delaware for which information is available? Or that many special needs chil­dren are now housed in group homes, with, of course, fewer than 15 children in each one?

Simply by housing children in small facilities, corporations can avoid public scrutiny of how taxpayer dollars are spent.

The problem is not that some children need special services and those services can be expensive. The problem is institutions are us­ing privacy policy - and it’s policy, not law - to avoid accountability. Yet when taxpayers are paying 40 to 50 times more for special needs children than for the average child, issues of basic fairness and fair distribution of resourc­es clearly arise. Investigating special educa­tion costs is not intended to deny needed services, but to demand that any school that accepts public dollars must provide a clear and public accounting of money spent and progress made by students in its care.

The children and taxpayers deserve no less.

  • Cape Gazette editorials are considered and written by members of the Cape Gazette editorial board which includes Dennis Forney, publisher; Trish Vernon, editor; Dave Frederick, sports editor emeritus; Laura Ritter, news editor; Jen Ellingsworth, associate editor; and Nick Roth, sports editor.

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