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5-9-14 Education in the News
NJ Spotlight - Opinion: Time to Revamp NJ's Costly, Segregated School System for Special-Needs Kids…Beyond recommendations and committees, transforming today's separate and unequal approach to special education demands a cultural shift

NJ Spotlight State’s Decision to Rescind Two Charters Shines Spotlight on Wider Issue…Trend is toward schools operated by larger networks instead of smaller independents

NJ Spotlight - Opinion: Time to Revamp NJ's Costly, Segregated School System for Special-Needs Kids…Beyond recommendations and committees, transforming today's separate and unequal approach to special education demands a cultural shift

Laura Waters | May 9, 2014


Everyone’s beating up on New Jersey’s special education system.

Earlier this year a federal district court judge approved an agreement that requires the state to take “extraordinary measures” to address “one of the most segregated special-education settings in the country.”

Federal and state law mandates that students with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” ideally within general education classes with appropriate modifications and support, but half of New Jersey’s special-needs children are isolated from their typical peers. One in 10 special-needs students is educated in an out-of-district school, far more than any other state in the country.

Confirming NJ’s segregated system for educating children with disabilities, last month the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) issued a new report entitled “Special Education: A Service, Not a Place.” This analysis offers 20 recommendations that intend to transform a culture that regards special education as a “separate place” to one in which special education is simply a continuum of therapies and supports provided to children with disabilities.

Over at the Statehouse, Gov. Chris Christie just christened yet another task force to address special education woes. Meanwhile, in a 2012 report, the state Department of Education worried that “the demands of an effective review and reconciliation of rates for every [private school for students with disabilities] strains the capacity of the Department’s finance staff.”

That’s fine. The state has promised to abide by the federal court ruling. There’s nothing wrong with another task force. The NJSBA offers important suggestions on student outcomes, systemic inefficiencies, and an overreliance on litigation to settle disputes between parents and districts. The state DOE can get over itself and provide a higher degree of accountability.

But a cultural shift will take more than recommendations and committees. How can we make substantive changes that respectfully serve the widely variable educational needs of students with disabilities without reflexively -- and unlawfully -- segregating them from their communities?

The first step is to squarely face the fiscal unsustainability of the current culture. According to New Jersey NJSBA data (vintage 2007: the age of the data is a symptom of the problem), the annual costs of special education are more than $3.3 billion per year; the primary cost drivers are tuition for and transportation to our segregated, out-of-district schools. The costs continue to climb, increasing 8 percent from 2008 - 2009 to 2011- 2012, double the increase in general education.

The second step is to start thinking about private special education schools and traditional schools as partners. Placement doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Educating our most fragile children requires a collaborative approach that encourages innovation, equity, and accountability.

In that spirit, here are two suggestions within the context of autism education, one of the most “high cost” disabilities, and of special concern in New Jersey. The federal Centers for Disease Control just reported that nationally one in 68 children is “on the spectrum” but in New Jersey, it’s one in 45, the highest rate in the country.

1.    According to the NJSBA, this year 14,502 students have a diagnosis of autism and of these, only 20 percent spend most of their day in general education classrooms. Almost 4,000 children with autism are segregated in separate schools.

The state publishes an annual list of approved tuition for private special education schools. Seven of the 10 most expensive schools are those that serve children with autism. Tuition runs from $438 to $558 per day. Four are clustered in wealthy Bergen County, where parents have the resources to be particularly proactive and litigious in acquiring placements for their children. Students can attend these schools from age three to 21. That’s $112,000 per year (for about 220 days) and over $2 million per child for 18 years.

These schools offer a highly-regarded intervention called Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, which requires one teacher for each student engaged in intense rote instruction for 30-40 hours per week. Many public schools also offer ABA, but not with comparable intensity because they’re bound by institutional logistics and union contracts that preclude those long school days. In addition, our plethora of small districts often precludes assembling a cohort of children who require similar instruction.

Perhaps there’s an opening here for charter schools, which have the flexibility to lengthen instructional time without contract negotiations, and are more tightly regulated by the state than private special education schools. Could a charter operator serve this fragile population more cost-effectively by scaling up services for a wide catchment area? Alternatively, should we require private special-education schools to reflect the demographics of surrounding communities, as we do with charter schools? Could successful schools open up satellite campuses within districts to encourage community integration?

1.    While public education has warily accepted the need for measuring curricular and instructional effectiveness through student outcomes, special education remains insulated from this trend. There are good reasons for this. The academic growth of typically developing children spans a relatively short curve compared to children with disabilities. Typical third-graders read at anywhere from a first- to fifth-grade level. The reading abilities of third-grade children with moderate to severe disabilities can span from basic pattern recognition to fluency.

With such variability, how do we measure academic success? When a child with autism or multiple disabilities learns to make eye contact or use the toilet reliably, teachers and parents celebrate. How do you place value on that kind of progress?

We’ve got to try. Embedded in NJSBA’s report is a call for a “student outcome centered” approach” and a new “outcomes-based paradigm.” It’s education reform for special education. The Obama administration backs up this paradigm shift. A new section on the U.S. Department of Education’s website notes that the government is "currently rethinking its accountability system in order to shift the balance from a system focused primarily on compliance to one that puts more emphasis . . . on educational results and functional outcomes for children with disabilities."

Time for the NJ DOE to start collecting data. Do children who attend those $500-a-day schools achieve better outcomes in adulthood -- increased independence, ability to work or socialize appropriately -- than those who go to traditional in-district programs? Can our private special education schools collaborate with the state and local districts to create data-driven analyses of best practices? Integrating children requires integrating information.

There will always be children with disabilities who require segregated settings. In New Jersey we’ve taken it too far, and mired ourselves in legal, ethical, and fiscal complications. Parents of special-needs kids (I am one) struggle everyday to find that elusive path that leads to inclusion in this wide world.

There’s no better place to start than in school.


NJ Spotlight State’s Decision to Rescind Two Charters Shines Spotlight on Wider Issue…Trend is toward schools operated by larger networks instead of smaller independents

John Mooney | May 9, 2014



The Christie administration’s policies toward charter schools continued to stir debate this week, as a second school shuttered by the administration in the last month questioned whether it was being punished for – among other things -- not being part of a large charter network.

It was announced this week that the Greater Newark Charter School, opened in 2000 and one of the state’s oldest charter schools, was not approved for its five-year renewal in April, ostensibly due to low achievement levels and a lack of plans to remedy them.

Related Links

Greater Newark Non-Renewal Letter

But its director said yesterday that the school is appealing the decision, contending that the state Department of Education did not follow its usual protocol in reviewing the school.

Christopher Pringle, the school’s director, said the school had fallen below set benchmarks in a single area for the first time in its 14 years. He questioned if the state was favoring schools that were part of large charter networks over the smaller independent schools.

“It seems like an all-out-war on the independent charters,” Pringle said yesterday.

The comments followed similar ones made by the director of a Camden charter school also closed in the last month by the state, this one only open for a year and cited for low performance levels in its first year.

The irony is that the administration has been viewed as being a strong supporter of charter schools, with the movement growing sharply under Gov. Chris Christie, especially in districts like Newark and Camden.

But the rulings against the two schools also come at a time when the tenor is shifting in the state’s charter school movement, with larger charter management organizations like the KIPP and Uncommon Schools organizations gaining more extensive strongholds in the state, especially in Newark and Camden.

Still, the complaints are not entirely surprising for schools that fell out of favor with the administration, and a spokesman said the state Department of Education would stand behind its decisions.

“It would not be appropriate to get into a back and forth,” said Mike Yaple, the department’s communications director.

“Closing any school is a difficult event,” Yaple added. “But, ultimately, our job is to make sure every child gets a quality education.”

The decision to close one of the charter movement’s long-established schools did raise eyebrows, especially after three previous renewals of Greater Newark’s charter and, now, what was apparently a single lapse that cost it its charter.

According to acting Commissioner David Hespe’s letter to the school, Greater Newark failed to meet benchmarks in its math scores and showed little progress in making improvements.

Under the state’s new measurements, a central benchmark for charters is whether they exceed the host district’s student performance, and Greater Newark 43 percent passing rate in math fell below Newark’s 48 percent mark.

But in other benchmark passing rates, including the year before, the school had bested the Newark public school district’s passing rates by double digits – although the state noted that those student growth measures had ranked in the lowest 11 percent of the state.

“When coupled together, Greater Newark Charter School’s low proficiency rates and its trajectory of low-typical growth are not sufficient,” Hespe wrote.

Pringle said the lapse was largely due to the loss of its fifth- and eighth-grade math teachers just before the school year started, but he said steps had been taken since then to catch up.

He said the problem wasn’t so much the criteria but the little leeway his school was given to make improvements. He said some schools have been placed on probation for a number of years.

“If we are a bad school, we should be closed,” he said. “But we should be given more than a year.”

The executive director of the state’s charter school association said the issues point to the changing face of the charter movement in New Jersey.

“New Jersey has had a unique history, in that in most other states, there has been more a mix, while in New Jersey, there were very fewer (charter management organizations),” said Carlos Perez of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.

“Now, that’s changing, and while it may seem like major growth, it’s really us just catching up with other states.”

Perez said he hopes that the smaller, independent charters will continue to thrive.

“They have been the life-blood of the movement,” he said. “And after all, the big organizations all started as smaller ones in the beginning.”


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608