Friday, December 6, 2013

Special Education Services and Compliance as Cost Savings

Joy Resmovits of Huffington Post recently ran an in-depth story on students with severe autism and one family's fight for their son's education.  The fight is over whether a 6 year old boy, Max Masucci,  can learn to say his name.  The school's specialists say he can't.  His parents say he can, but the time window for him to learn "how" to learn is closing.  They point to researchers who say there is a "window of opportunity [in which] the brain is still developing and very malleable until age eight or nine. . . If, at that point, you utilize some of the evidence-based best practices like behavioral intervention strategy, you really are rewiring the brain."   In other words, if the district doesn't act soon, its prophesy may be self fulfilling for Max.

A key legal and policy issue is embedded in this debate.  The cost of special education services, particularly for individuals with severe disabilities, can be enormous.  As a result, some schools feel incentivized to deny or delay services.  Even if parents challenge schools through special education due process hearings, schools can end up saving money if they can win a portion of these hearings.  Of course, many families will not challenge the school.  The problem is that this calculus ignores long term and broader societal costs.  The Autism Society emphasizes, for instance, that if autistic students do not learn the skills they need to eventually live an independent life, the societal cost of care only increases over time: $3.2 million over the course of each person's life.  The total national cost would be between $200 billion and $400 billion annually.   Early investments in education, however, are said to give these students a 60 percent chance of independent living.  If those numbers are correct, special education services and legal compliance are not burdens on society that we ought to avoid, but a cost savings we should embrace.  Of course, this is the same point advocates have pressed in recent months regarding implementing universal pre-k and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.  Either our propensity to live in the moment or the growing lack of faith in the education system keep getting in the way of rationale thought.

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