San Francisco Chronicle on "Extra-Special Education"
At Woodside High in San Mateo County, college-prep classes awaited a 15-year-old boy with learning disabilities and anxiety.
He would blend in with other college-bound students, but also receive daily help from a special education expert. He would get a laptop computer, extra time for tests -- and an advocate to smooth any ripples with teachers. If an anxiety attack came on, he could step out of class.
But Woodside High wasn't what his parents had in mind.
Instead, they enrolled him in a $30,000-a-year prep school in Maine -- then sent the bill to their local public school district.
Similar stories are playing out up and down California as more parents of special education students seek extra-special education at public expense: private day schools, boarding schools, summer camps, aqua therapy, horseback therapy, travel costs, personal aides and more.
Dissatisfied with -- or unwilling to consider -- classes and therapies offered by public schools, growing numbers of parents have learned that demanding more can yield striking benefits, especially when they threaten to sue.
And an expensive legal battle is the last thing district administrators want. So they often give in.
Legal proceedings "are a huge time drain on your administration and your teachers," said Karen Mates, special education director for the Tampalpais Union High School District in Marin County. "You don't want to spend precious dollars on this, so districts will settle a case to avoid it."
The result: Expensive legal judgments and confidential settlements add hundreds of millions of dollars to already soaring special education costs across California, while taxpayers are kept in the dark about how the money is spent.
Meanwhile, California school districts shift more than a billion dollars a year out of their regular school budgets to pay for it all.
"This is not sustainable," said Paul Goldfinger, a California school finance expert. "Special education is a growing portion of budgets in many districts, squeezing out services for other pupils.
Yet to many parents whose children need help, nothing seems more justified than seeking the best.
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Special ed serves nearly 700,000 students in California, and the program appears to be working for most of them. Yet complaints are rising, and fast.
Last year, 3,763 children with disabilities were the subject of formal complaints over educational services, triple what it was a decade ago. Parents open the vast majority of cases, and districts have a built-in financial incentive to settle them because it can cost up to $40,000 to go to a hearing. And then there's the possibility of an expensive judgment against the district.
So districts try not to let a case go that far. Last year, districts participated in 386 full hearings -- just 10 percent of cases opened.
The rest -- 90 percent -- were resolved through secret settlements.
"They really don't want parents out saying, 'Oh, if you just sue this district, you'll get whatever I got,' '' said Elizabeth Estes, an attorney with Miller, Brown, & Dannis, which represents districts.
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In recent years, private education at public expense has become a sought-after benefit for children with a wide range of disabilities. The practice of "unilateral placement" -- enrolling a child in a private school, then billing a district for tuition -- is gaining ground, say educators.
In California, private enrollment for students with disabilities has risen nearly five times faster than the overall increase in special ed students, state records show.
Since 1993, the number of students in public special ed programs rose 27 percent, to 681,969 from 539,073. But special ed students placed in private schools at public expense rose nearly five times faster -- 128 percent, to 15,926 from 6,994.
As costs soar, many educators paint a picture of a system financially out of control and increasingly unfair to students whose families can't afford lawyers to win them extra-special education at public expense.