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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Who pays?

Luke Perkins

Who Pays for Special Ed
Parents want the best for their disabled kids. Public schools say they can't handle the cost

Luke Perkins has been living "two disparate lives," court documents say: one at school in Berthoud, Colo., where the autistic boy was making some progress, and the other outside school, where the 9-year-old was so unruly he could not take part in such basic activities as going to church or eating in a restaurant. He became so destructive at night that his family resorted to locking him in his bedroom, which had been stripped of furniture because he kept smearing feces all over everything.

As with many autistic children, the skills Luke was acquiring in the classroom were not very portable. (Learning how to use the toilet at school, for example, didn't translate into his knowing how to use one anywhere else.) Alarmed by his regression at home, the Perkinses in late 2003 enrolled Luke in a Boston boarding school renowned for its success with autistic children. And because federal law requires school districts to provide an extended school day and even residential services if a special-education student needs them, his parents informed Colorado's Thompson school district it had to pick up the bill for Boston Higashi's $135,000 annual tuition.

Not surprisingly, the district balked. It argued that Luke, now 11, had been doing just fine at his local elementary school and that it shouldn't be held responsible for his backsliding at home. But both an independent hearing officer and an administrative-law judge disagreed and found that Luke's disability was severe enough to warrant a publicly financed 24-hour educational program. The district is now suing in federal court to try to overturn those rulings.

The battle over who should pay how much to educate Luke Perkins is only the latest front in the war over funding for special education. It has been three decades since the Education for All Handicapped Children Act first guaranteed a free education tailored to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities. The goal of that law is honorable: to protect children whose disabilities for too long condemned them to low expectations. But the number of kids receiving special-ed services--for physical, cognitive, learning and other problems--has doubled since fiscal 1977, to an estimated 6.9 million (or roughly 11% of all students nationwide), and cash-strapped school districts are struggling to find funding for those children, who on average cost more than twice as much to educate as nondisabled students.

The result, in many instances, has been wrenching--and often expensive--clashes between parents seeking the best for their child and school administrators trying to balance the needs of all students. Special-ed costs threaten to eat into budgets for school endeavors that are not federally mandated, like athletics or the gifted-and-talented program. The money has to come from somewhere, says Becky Jay, who was president of the local school board when the Perkinses first asked for tuition reimbursement, "and regular kids lose out."

posted by Steve @ 12:15:00 AM

12:15:00 AM

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