New Jersey’s standing as the nation’s leader in the number of students with disabilities who are sent to out-of-district schools continues to generate debate over the costs and benefits.
But as school districts in recent years have reduced the number of students they send outside, a new research study commissioned by an association of private special-education schools has found that at least a sampling of New Jersey students graduating from out-of-district schools fare better than their peers in public schools nationally.
The research conducted by Johns Hopkins University researcher Deborah Carran was modeled after the federally funded National Longitudinal Transition Study completed in 2009. It looked at both New Jersey and Maryland students two years after they had left their respective schools and how they compared with the national samples.
“The most amazing thing I found is that the number and proportion of these kids that are going into post-secondary education,” said Carran in an interview. “They are going into junior colleges and four-year colleges. And they are employed and engaged.
“They are doing stuff and not just sitting at home waiting for their parents to take care of them,” she said.
The report itself is sure to spark some debate, especially in the face of continued push for greater inclusion programs for special-education students. Some advocates immediately questioned whether the study had adequate “controls” factored in for race, income and other demographic factors.
“I would hate for families to generalize from this study that a private school placement is the answer for their child,” said Deborah Jennings, co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network.
“Special education is not just about a place, but it’s about individual children receiving the services, supports, accommodations, and modifications to achieve their greatest potential,” she explained.
Gerard Thiers, executive director of ASAH, the organization representing private special-education schools in the state, said he expected the questions when his group commissioned the report.
“It is why we wanted the outside party to do it,” he said. “We really wanted to minimize any chance of bias.”
Thiers said the results are not very different from results of annual surveys his association conducts.
But he said the point isn’t to pit out-of-district against in-district programs.
“This is not just a reflection of private schools, but special education in New Jersey in general,” he said. “We all provide a lot of services, and that’s what is needed, getting the services to the kids when they need them.”
Still, the arguments over in-district and out-of-district placements is not going away in New Jersey, especially considering that it has the highest rate in the country, with close to 8 percent of all students classified with disabilities in outside placements.
Five years ago, the rate was closer to 10 percent. Especially as tight budgets have hit hard, more students have been brought back into district schools. Thiers said his 145 members’ enrollments have dropped by about 1,000 students from a high of 12,600 in 2007, and that there about 30 fewer schools as well. Still, he said the worst of that has subsided, and he said the numbers have stabilized.
“The schools weathered it, and most programs were able to make adjustments to remain viable,” he said.
While Carran wanted to stay out of the debate over costs or even inclusion, she said her research showed that the private special-ed schools are at least working for the students they serve.
“These schools are expensive, I know they are, but these schools are like therapeutic day treatment for kids who really need it at this point in time,” she said. “This is really critical time in a young person’s life. If they aren’t going to make it to 21 in a pretty healthy state, they have a lot of problems coming down the road.”