NY needs to cut special ed spending

Originally published in Newsday

Two years ago this month, the Suozzi Commission came out with a startling report. Charged with finding a way to lower property taxes, the group - formally named the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief - turned sharply off course to detail the escalating cost of special education.

For more than a year, the commission looked for fundamental reasons why New York's property taxes are so high. It asked public school officials who, one after another, pointed to special education.

So, the commission assigned a task force to examine special ed. It found that the state has 204 "mandates" beyond federal rules that make our special education system the most expensive in the country. On average, New York schools spend $9,494 per pupil in regular classrooms, and a prodigious $23,898 for each special education student.

Our state is rightly proud of its generous and progressive history on education. But you have to wonder, as a new administration takes over in Albany next month with a $9-billion deficit chained to its ankle, whether it's time to take another look at the Suozzi Commission's findings. After all, the state Council of School Superintendents called them "the most thorough independent review of New York's special education policies in the more than 30 years since the current basic structure was put into place" - yet they've essentially been ignored.

One problem with special ed is that too many students qualify. Don't assume that these programs serve only those students diagnosed with a severe mental or physical challenge. In fact, more than half the students in special ed simply need extra help in reading or math, speech therapy or other support.

Schools receive extra resources for special ed students, so they have an incentive to label marginal students as disabled. But what if not all of them are really disabled? Not only would that be a waste of money, it would harm the truly disabled students by overburdening the resources meant to serve them.

Also, shifting non-disabled students into special education can stigmatize them and sidesteps problems, like failing schools, that should be addressed head-on.

Once kids are in special ed, schools must meet minimum requirements for them, like drafting an individualized education program every year. Students in speech therapy had to attend at least two sessions a week - no matter what their needs were - until the Board of Regents relaxed that rule last month.

Such regulations may sound trifling, until you consider there are 204 of them, on top of a tome of federal rules.

School officials are also required to hold legal hearings, at an average cost of $75,000, if a parent questions a student's placement. (Parents pay some of the cost.) In the 2007-08 school year, 6,157 hearings were requested. A case for one child on Long Island cost $300,000.

Parents can sue to have the school district pay for private school tuition - as much as $25,000 a year or more - and for bus service within 50 miles of a child's home. In theory, a Mineola student could qualify for door-to-door service to a school in Greenwich, Conn. - although it defies logic that a parent would want that.

Last month, New York's Regents did away with a few of the 204 mandates, but nothing that will cut costs. What's needed is a study of results: which strategies work best to move students on to college or the workforce. Schools should know what leads to success.

Parent advocates for students with disabilities correctly argue that early intervention - say, remedial reading in lower grades - prevents problems later on. And no one wants a child to struggle needlessly. But the spending gap is outrageous. It's time to find a middle ground.