Special Ed Crisis — The High Cost Of Autism Education

Here’s a story within a story within a story.

The first story starts with a local headline: “Escalating Special Ed Costs Impact Surplus.” The Bloomingdale, NJ Board of Ed recently had to move $238,000 from its $343,447 surplus to cover special education services. They also appropriated an additional $50,000 to pay litigation costs related to special education services.

Although matters of pending litigation could not be discussed, the story behind the story was clear: Bloomingdale is spending a boatload of money on Special Ed services, but it’s not enough. Evidently some parents want additional services, and are willing to take the borough to court.

Bloomingdale Board of Education

The Bloomingdale Board of Education considers special education costs before a gallery of groovy artwork.

Bloomingdale Board of Ed member Dan Schlotterbeck feels the state should help shoulder the cost of some of these services.

“These are necessary costs,” he said. “But we can’t do it alone.”

The Big Story >

And that’s where the story within the story lays — the big story. Special education costs are on the rise across the nation. Why? Autism rates are on the rise. An estimated 1-in-88 kids are being diagnosed with the developmental disorder. Nowhere is this felt more acutely than in New Jersey, where the rate of this disorder is 1-in-60; 1-in-30 boys in the state of New Jersey are being diagnosed with autism. That’s a lot of special education students. That’s a lot of special education students who have yet to be born.

Nearly eight years ago, the Government Accountability Office estimated the cost of educating an autistic child at $18,000 per year, nearly three times the cost of educating a typical student. It costs more to educate an autistic student than any other type of special education student. And states are mandated to educate autistic students until the age of 21.

It all adds up to a financial crisis that could bankrupt any educational system. It’s a financial crisis that’s already upon us, only its effects have yet to be fully felt. The Bloomingdale school board feels the pinch. They won’t be first. Things are going to get much worse.

High Price Tag, Sub-Par Service >

My son has autism, so I have firsthand knowledge of educating an autistic child. So far it has been a financial hot potato — a responsibility that everyone wants to quickly toss off to someone else. The state school board wants local towns to educate autistic students in-district; let each individual school board figure out how to pay for its autistic kids. But the smaller districts, like Bloomingdale (and the one I live in) aren’t equipped to handle the educational needs of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified) classified kids, so they look for out-of-district placements; they pay somebody else to educate their autistic kids.

But even if the price tag is high, the services can be sub-standard. The demand for a quality education for autistic children is simply overwhelming the supply; too many kids need help and there are not enough qualified staff to help them. I can sympathize with the parents of special-needs kids in Bloomingdale, the ones who are alluded to only between the lines of the story about school board bookkeeping. It costs a lot to educate an autistic student, but autism is such an individualized disorder that sometimes your kid still needs more.

Sometimes you have to fight to get it.