Legislative Study Confirms Special Education Day Schools Provide Essential Services to School Districts

Legislative Study Confirms Special Education Day Schools Provide Essential Services to School Districts

A message from VIA President and CEO Dr. Ethan Long on the value of special education services:

In November, Virginia’s Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission (JLARC) published a report that examined the cost-effectiveness of services provided by private special education day schools. These schools, like VIA’s James C. Hormel School, are designed to serve Virginia’s most vulnerable and behaviorally challenged students. Many of these students exhibit learning disorders and/or challenging behaviors that can include aggression towards teachers and peers, self-injurious behaviors, property destruction, or running away from the classroom or school. The severity of the challenges these students and their families face (and that schools must help them address) is a hidden, and not widely understood aspect of the life of people with special needs.

Often these behaviors result from a history of underlying trauma, mental health disorders, autism, and/or other developmental disabilities. Private special education day schools exist to serve as an “extension” to the public school system, ensuring that students with disabilities receive the appropriate education mandated by federal law. Parents do not pay tuition to these schools, rather school districts and localities share the costs of the students’ tuition, supplemented by funds made available through Virginia’s Children’s Services Act (CSA). The November report rightly notes that public school educators rely on the expertise and lower staff-to-student ratios at private special education day schools to help educate these students.

The report gave high marks to private day special education schools for their quality and effectiveness in serving students whose needs “are too severe or challenging for public schools to manage effectively.” Across the Commonwealth, these schools play a critical role in ensuring that all students’ receive an effective education that is focused on their individual needs. Working in partnership with public schools, private special education day schools offer the expertise and learning environment needed to educate some of the most challenged student populations.

The costs of private special education school placements for special needs students have been rising. The JLARC study found that the overall driver of these increases was rising enrollment, not increases in tuition rates. The report noted that private day special education school tuition costs are consistent with providing low student-to-staff ratios in small classroom environments. The truth is these services are costly, regardless of whether they occur in public or private school settings. That is why as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, VIA fundraises every year to offset approximately 10% of our total tuition costs.

The JLARC report makes clear that those costs deliver essential outcomes: ensuring that even the most severely challenged students have an opportunity to participate to the fullest extent possible in community and family life and ensuring that our public schools meet their federal mandate of providing the free and appropriate education that all students lawfully deserve.

We at VIA are encouraged by the insights and recommendations of the JLARC report and look forward to further collaborating with our school district partners to ensure students receive the specialized services they need in a cost-effective manner.

Finally, the JLARC report notes that Virginia needs to decide whether to continue paying for these education services. Both public and private educators will agree that in order for our most vulnerable and behaviorally challenged students to have the best chance of success, their education and behavior needs to be fully addressed, and decisions about services that can change lives need not be driven solely by financial considerations.