Special ed cost exceeds Harvard Private schools thrive on children Baltimore can't or won't educate; Taxpayers cover tuition

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At the High Road School of Baltimore County, newly opened this year in a Dundalk strip mall, an education costs $34,000 a year.

At New Foundations, a school for boys that operates out of the Chicago Title Insurance Building in downtown Baltimore, tuition is $53,000.

And at the National Children's Center in Washington, D.C., where some students live year-round, an education, room, board and services cost $132,000 a year.

Who pays these higher-than-Harvard tuition rates?

As a Maryland taxpayer, you do.

Baltimore, a city that places more of its students in special education than almost any other school district in the country, also tops the charts in the number of special education children it sends to costly private schools.

While other districts across the country have developed their own programs to serve their most severely handicapped students, Baltimore schools have passed the buck to private businesses.

As a result, an inequitable system has developed in which the few get tutoring, state-of-the-art equipment and hours of therapy, while the majority get one of the most poorly funded educations in the state.

Last year, the Baltimore school system and its funding partner, the Maryland Department of Education, spent $45.3 million to send 1,150 special education students to private schools.

By contrast, the city spent about $4.2 million to educate the 1,054 students at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute -- one of the few city high schools to send most of its graduates to college.

With about 6 percent of its 18,828 special education students in pricey private institutions, Baltimore's rate for such placements is five times the national norm, and it is growing -- up almost 50 percent in four years.

Baltimore sends away so many students that the city's disabled children are fueling the growth of an industry of privately run, publicly funded special education schools.

In the past year, 11 private special education schools -- called "nonpublic institutions" in the jargon of special education law -- have opened in Maryland, boosting the number of such schools by more than a third, according to the Maryland Association of Nonpublic Special Education Facilities.

Several existing schools have also expanded greatly; many are almost full.

In part, these schools have grown to accommodate students who were once sent to out-of-state institutions and now, by law, must be educated in Maryland. But many -- including several for-profit businesses -- have fed their expansions with children who were in Baltimore schools.

They range in quality from the nationally acclaimed Kennedy Krieger School, which provides sophisticated education and therapy, to spartan operations where the staffers' main job is to keep students under control.

Regardless, they can name their prices.

The Hattie Sams School operates out of a dilapidated former city middle school with broken windows and peeling paint. It opened in January and immediately enrolled 15 emotionally disturbed city students at $38,000 apiece.

The school, which shares the building with a church, began as a 10-month program with ambitions of enrolling 45 students. When its founder, Jo Russau, learned that the city would pay for 12 months, she quickly extended the curriculum and raised the price, arguing that her students needed the continuity of year-round education.

Friendly state bureaucracy

The for-profit High Road School of Baltimore County opened in a Dundalk shopping center in March; by September it had enrolled 26 emotionally disturbed youths, at tuitions ranging from $30,000 to $35,000. A second High Road School opened this fall in Howard County.

The parent company, Kids 1 Inc. of New Brunswick, N.J., is considering a third school in the area, attracted by the high "customer demand" and a state bureaucracy friendly to nonpublic schools, says President Ellyn Lerner.

"When we look at opening a school, the first thing we want to know is will a bank give you a loan?" says Lerner. "That can only be done in a state with a history of these kids in these kinds of schools."

The directors of these expensive schools acknowledge that they must be able to recoup the high costs of their intensive staffing, ++ and there, again, Baltimore and Maryland are willing to pay their rates.

The average costs for nonpublic day schools range from $30,000 to about $47,000, although some cost more than $50,000 for tuition alone, according to the state. Extra therapies and services for these students often increase the base price by 50 percent or more, up to $80,000 per child in some cases, according to figures obtained from the Baltimore school system.

Residential schools are even more expensive, averaging $97,000 per child but occasionally costing up to $150,000, according to the Maryland Department of Education. Last year, Baltimore schools and the state spent more than $100,000 per pupil for the education and care of 16 disabled children.

"It's absurd, the amount of money we spend on nonpublic placements," says Gayle Amos, director of special education for the Baltimore school system. "Parents want it. Kids need it.

"We don't have the programs. There are reasons the use of nonpublics is high, but the cost is exorbitant, and we are doing the kids a disservice."

A flood of 'damaged' children

To some degree, the high price of special education and its most expensive subset, the nonpublic placement, is one cost of a society gone very wrong.

Increasingly beset by disease, drug abuse and violence, Baltimore is producing a seemingly endless supply of "damaged" children, as sociologists openly call them. Now reaching adolescence, the most severely affected of these children are mentally retarded, mentally ill and often violent.

Few dispute that private placements are the best answer for the sickest of these children. But the high number of children receiving such services suggests that far more than the truly needy are getting the most expensive care.

A broad label

Two-thirds of the students the city sends to private schools are diagnosed as "emotionally disturbed," a loosely defined label applied to children who are psychotic and dangerous, as well as those who are simply disruptive in class.

Amos acknowledges that the number of children diagnosed as "emotionally disturbed" who are sent to private schools is unacceptably high, in part because the district has failed to develop programs to deal with these children before they get out of control.

"A lot of the kids that we have that are 'emotionally disturbed' start out as behavior problems, and that goes back to a quality of instruction, classroom management issue," she says.

"In the past -- and it's probably still happening -- a principal would say, 'I want this kid out of my building,' and that's how they ended up out of the school."

Many of the other children sent to private schools, particularly those with speech and language problems or learning disabilities, are indistinguishable from their disabled peers who remain in Baltimore public schools -- except for one thing.

These children, according to a review of school records, have savvy advocates -- parents, lawyers or psychologists -- who know how to force the system to use public dollars to pay for

private education.

Federal law requires school districts to provide every child with a "free appropriate public education." If a public school cannot provide that "appropriate" education, it must pay for the child's education elsewhere.

Usually advocates must prove that the school system has failed to give a child what he needs and cannot reasonably be expected to do so in the future. Expensive -- and restrictive -- private placements were intended to be a last resort.

Power of lawyers

But in some cases, school records show, lawyers have been able to force Baltimore to pay private school tuition for children who were never enrolled in city schools.

Of the six Baltimore students at the private Norbel School for learning disabled children, three students were already enrolled in the academy, in a synagogue in Park Heights. Their lawyer, Susan Leviton, successfully argued that the Baltimore school should reimburse their parents for their tuitions of $12,000 to $18,000.

Leviton declined to discuss the individual cases.

In general, she said, a school system can be compelled to pay for a private education if it fails to provide an adequate education or violates procedures meant to provide the child with a timely education.

School officials privately complain that the system was not given the opportunity to demonstrate that it could educate these children. They say Leviton successfully argued that the children were so "socially awkward" and "different" that they would be targets for abuse in a public school.

"You're talking about only five cases out of more than 1,000 students in nonpublic placements," says Leviton. "It really is very difficult to get students in private schools. There has to be a good reason."

Leviton, who said she represents about seven private clients a year and handles 20 to 30 cases through the University of Maryland law clinic, is among a cadre of lawyers who have built successful practices proving that the Baltimore school system does not comply with federal special education law.

At times, that has been easy.

Since 1988, Baltimore has been operating under court orders to improve its special education program, all the while failing to do so. The lawsuit behind the orders, Vaughn G. vs. the Mayor of Baltimore, et al., has produced volumes of evidence that attest to the school system's incompetence and its repeated failure to educate students effectively.

Winifred DePalma, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Vaughn G. case, said the goal of the suit was to reduce all restrictive special education placements, including those in nonpublics.

DePalma also said the outcome of a new agreement signed last week between the plaintiffs and the school district should be a reduction in nonpublic placements.

"We've always wanted children moved from more restrictive environments to less restrictive ones," DePalma said. "And a lot of parents wouldn't want their children in nonpublic placements.

"But their experiences with the public schools were so horrible, that this was the only way they could get the services they need."

Parents' horror stories

And many parents of children now in private schools have horror stories to tell about city schools.

Maria Browne's son, Brian, who was slow to talk, was diagnosed with a communications disorder, but spent almost eight years in public preschool and special education programs without getting the help he needed.

(As a little boy, he stopped speaking after a teacher told him that if he couldn't talk properly, he shouldn't talk at all.)

The school system didn't respond to Browne's repeated pleas until her son, frustrated by his inability to express himself, had a confrontation with a teacher in the sixth grade. Officials tried to label him "emotionally disturbed," but a private psychologist intervened and recommended treatment for his communication disorder.

After two years at Kennedy Krieger, Brian, an eighth-grader, now is reading on grade level and doing 11th-grade work in math, his mother says. A talented artist, he is preparing to apply to the Baltimore School for the Arts in the spring.

"It's like Brian is a whole new person," says Browne.

Special education managers, mindful of cases like Browne's and of the system's repeated failings, admit that they're reluctant to reject requests for private placements.

"It's almost a mind-set of 'give the parents what they want,' " Amos said.

The special education managers who authorize the nonpublic placements aren't responsible for the cost of the tuition. Moreover, they're often under pressure from principals who want troublesome students out of the building.

If the school denies a placement, it could face an appeal and possible sanctions if its decision is overturned. Baltimore so rarely turns down requests for private placements that advocates have appealed only five such cases since July 1996, according to state records. The city won four of those.

Because of a complex funding arrangement between the city and state, the city can often count on the state to pay most of the cost of sending a child to private school. But for taxpayer purposes, that's irrelevant: the taxpayer pays.

Last year, the city was responsible for the first $10,554 of any private school tuition plus 20 percent of the balance. The state paid the remainder.

Under that formula, a private school's tuition would have to exceed $69,000 before the city's share exceeded $22,200, the per-pupil cost at Sharp-Leadenhall Elementary, one of the three public schools for emotionally disturbed children.

Little incentive to change

Thus, with private placements largely subsidized by the state, -- Baltimore schools have had little incentive to build their own programs.

The city has 11 special education-only schools, including three, an elementary, middle and high school, for emotionally disturbed children. The majority of its most severely disabled students are educated in separate classrooms or wings of regular schools.

Most of these classrooms, Amos says, are filled.

The special education-only schools, among a troubled district's best-regarded programs, have generally the same student-teacher ratios and offer a viable alternative to the private schools, at a far lower overall cost.

Yet, the school system has been reluctant to expand these schools or to give their principals enough resources to provide the basics.

For instance, at Harbor View Learning Center, a public school for mentally retarded children whose disabilities range from moderate to profound, Principal Barbara Avery gave up her only assistant principal so she could buy computer equipment and build a playground.

At Sharp-Leadenhall Elementary, the staff rents out spaces on the school's parking lot during events at the nearby Ravens Stadium to raise money for modest field trips to farms and parks for its emotionally disturbed students. "What would we buy with more money? Everything. We need everything," says Sharp-Leadenhall Principal Jessie Simmons Hargrove.

Amos says that the funding arrangement with the state has historically given the school system little reason to expand programs or to cut costs.

Carol Ann Baglin, assistant superintendent for special education with the Maryland Department of Education, says the state faces a deficit this year in the millions of dollars in its nonpublic account.

Even so, officials acknowledge, the state rarely rejects private placements approved by local districts or objects to tuition rates.

"We try to position ourselves in the lowest quartile," says Lerner, president of KIDS 1, "but there have been times when we have charged less and people have questioned whether we were cutting corners."

Plentiful experts

Another factor affecting the use and cost of private schools is the large number of experts in Baltimore who diagnose children with learning disabilities and emotional problems.

People from institutions such as Kennedy Krieger, the Hearing and Speech Agency and the Sheppard Pratt Hospital often prescribe regimens for the same children ultimately enrolled in their affiliated schools.

"We're the primary resource for evaluating children in the city," says Kennedy Krieger Institute President Gary Goldstein, who estimates that the institute saw 11,000 children last year, including 4,000 children with behavior problems and learning disabilities.

"It's a big issue, and we're a big provider for these children. Very few of the children we see end up at this school."

Fifty-eight of the 132 Baltimore students at the Kennedy Krieger School were diagnosed by Krieger staff or had them as advocates.

The Hearing and Speech Agency was directly involved with at least half of the referrals to its Gateway School, according to Baltimore school records.

And Sheppard Pratt, one of Maryland's largest private mental hospitals, is responsible for diagnosing many of the children who ultimately received private placements.

"In the diagnosis, you don't say 'Forbush' or 'Jefferson' [a residential facility owned by Sheppard Pratt]. You list the needs of the kid," says Burt Lohnes, director of education at Forbush School, Sheppard Pratt's day school.

Nonpublic schools work closely with school districts to promote their programs and ensure that the students keep coming.

Forbush has had only four private-pay patients in 17 years. In October, all but one of the 45 students at Gateway were from Baltimore public schools.

Most of the schools have increased enrollment, added programs such as vocational training, even changed treatment emphasis to serve more city students.

(At Gateway, which charges $34,731, enrollment has declined as more local schools improved their communications programs.)

"The focus [of the school] has been driven by the school system," says Kennedy Krieger's Goldstein. "Children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, years ago were the main clients. As the school system has adapted to serve those children, we don't do that."

Children with severe emotional problems and learning disabilities now account for the majority of Kennedy Krieger's students, as they do at almost two-thirds of Maryland's nonpublic schools.

'Like neurosurgery'

A few years ago, Kennedy Krieger opened a separate wing and && began an extended day program for emotionally disturbed children from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., five days a week. Tuition for this program is $71,800 a year, per child, largely because of the almost one-to-one ratio of staff to students.

"The children who are here aren't going to make it unless you give them intensive intervention," says Goldstein. "I look upon it almost like it is neurosurgery. It's very expensive, but hopefully when you're done, it's successful."

Directors of these private schools justify their tuitions by citing their low student-to-staff ratios and the numbers of social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and nurses they employ full time. A few of the schools, such as Forbush and Hattie Sams, also require family counseling, which adds to the cost.

"When you're dealing with an [emotionally disturbed] kid, he's all over the place," says Jo Russau, chief administrator of Hattie Sams. "To get that child ready for society is no joke."

Few dispute, either, that the best of the private schools have resources that the school district cannot match. At the Hannah More School in Reisterstown, the $40,000-plus tuition buys emotionally disturbed youths intensive counseling and access to array of sophisticated vocational programs.

At St. Elizabeth's School, governed and operated by the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore, administrators say that at least 90 percent of their graduating students, most of whom are mentally retarded, autistic or have suffered brain injuries, get jobs or job training after school.

Many of the students, about four-fifths of whom come from Baltimore, also suffer from physical handicaps and require medical care -- all factors that contribute to the $38,027 tuition for an 11-month program.

"A lot of these kids would fall through the cracks," says Christine Manlove, executive director and principal of St. Elizabeth's.

"Their IQs are too low for the nonpublic schools that take children with emotional disabilities, and they have too many emotional disabilities for the public schools that deal primarily with mental retardation, and they're not severely profoundly handicapped enough for the residential placements."

Some of the schools, however, acknowledge that their emphasis is upon behavior management first, education second. At New Foundations, which opened two years ago, 38 of the 40 students are from Baltimore -- more than half have been hospitalized for psychiatric problems and a third have committed criminal offenses.

"These are the students who are the most disruptive, who not only have a difficult time in participating in their own education but who also interfere with the education of others," says Vince Collins, executive director of New Foundations. "You have to get the behavior under control before you can do anything else."

Academics secondary

Even at Forbush, according to one parent, academics took a back seat to therapy for her son. Stephanie Rich says she has watched in dismay as her son has lost ground academically.

"I have to trust and believe that the therapy is going to make a difference but they weren't challenging him academically," says tTC Rich. "His twin sister who goes to Western definitely carries a bigger [homework] load than he does."

For the most part, parents praise the private schools and fight fiercely to keep their children in them. School officials acknowledge that once children are in private institutions, it is almost impossible to move them back to public school.

Melissa Jones has seen her son Jamal, born 15 weeks premature with a host of problems, learn to talk, sing, read and use sign language at the Gateway School -- skills his doctors thought he'd never acquire.

Jamal, who entered Gateway when he was 3 years old, is 9 and this year will "graduate" from the academy. He has never attended public school.

"It's not an option. I won't allow it," says Jones, who is looking for another private school for Jamal. "Baltimore City can't offer me the services. Baltimore City can't have my child."

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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