Blaming Special Ed — Again

When times get tough, school systems and their enabling reporters blame special education.  Regular readers of JPGB and Education Next have seen this argument debunked before, but I feel compelled to do it again in response to a sloppy and lazy article in the Wall Street Journal.

The WSJ piece by Barbara Martinez is entitled “Private-School Tuitions Burden DOE.”  The DOE in this case is the Department of Education in New York City, which the article points out “last year spent $116 million on tuition and legal expenses related to special-education students whose parents sued the DOE on the grounds that the public-school options were inadequate. That’s more than double the number of just three years ago, and the costs are expected to continue to rise in coming years.”

As I’ve pointed out before, the trick to writing an article blaming special education is to mention a high cost for educating certain special education students (or even a high-sounding aggregate figure) without putting in perspective how much money that is relative to the entire school budget.  True to form, this article states: “The tuition payouts range between $20,000 and more than $100,000 per child and have been used for schools as far away as Utah.”  Wow, that sounds like a lot of money.  And going all the way to Utah sounds extravagant.

But let’s put this issue in perspective, which even a minimal amount of effort by the reporter could have done.  If private school tuition really is a “burden” as the title asserts, the cost of private-placement should be a significant portion of the New York City school budget.  It isn’t.  If you look at the NYC education budget you see that schools spent a total of $17.9 billion in 2009.  The total cost of private placement is only $116 million, which is about .6% of total spending.  This is close to rounding error for NYC.

To put it further in perspective, the NYC education system spent $151 million last year on pollution remediation to address lead paint, asbestos, and contaminated soil at its properties.  Imagine if there had been a news article entitled “Pollution Clean-Up Burdens DOE.”  People would have dismissed that as ridiculous, noting that the total amount spent on pollution is a very small part of the total budget and could hardly be considered a burden.  What’s more, people would have acknowledged that cleaning up pollution is important and the schools need to do it.

But this article on private tuition for special education “burdens” is even worse because the burden on the district isn’t the total cost, but the cost for private placement in excess of what the district would have spent if they had served these disabled students in traditional public schools.  We know from the article that there were 4,060 students who sought private placement for an aggregate cost of $116 million.  That works out to $28,571 per student.

We also know from the NYC DOE budget that schools spent a total of $17.9 billion for about 1.1 million students, which works out to $16,263 per student.  But wait, NYC spends more on its special education students than on the average student.  If we look at the NYC DOE budget (which any education reporter worth his or her salt could easily do), they identify additional costs associated with special education.  From that we can calculate that NYC spends an average of $24,773 on its special education students.

The “burden” on NYC DOE from paying private school tuition is the difference between the average tuition and legal costs associated with private placement ($28,571) and the average cost for a disabled student in the traditional public schools ($24,773), which works out to $3,798 per student.  An extra $3,798 per privately placed student over 4,060 students constitutes an additional expense of $15.4 million for NYC DOE.  That amounts to less than .09% of the NYC DOE education budget.

Calling this a “burden” on the district is irresponsible and just distracts people from the true and large areas of waste burdening the school system.

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