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

Taxpayers cover tuition

December 06, 1998|By Debbie M. Price and Stephen Henderson | Debbie M. Price and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF Sun researcher Andrea Wilson contributed to this article.

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.

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