Extra-Special Education At Public Expense

By Nanette Asimov for the SF Chronicle.

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.

In the Woodside case, the boy was still a year from finishing middle school when his parents hired a consultant to find them an alternative to Woodside High.

The consultant, Miriam Bodin, suggested several private schools, all outside of California. The parents chose Kents Hill, a bucolic boarding school with one-tenth the enrollment of Woodside High — and no special education program.
“I didn’t care if they had special education,” said the boy’s mother, who agreed to discuss the case if the family were not identified. “He needed a small classroom on a small campus. This was a very good situation.”
He enrolled at Kents Hill in 2000.

Records show the parents had previously gotten their elementary district, Portola Valley, to pay half the tuition of a small private middle school in Vermont for students with learning disabilities.

Now they hoped to get the Sequoia Union High School District, which includes Woodside High, to pay for Kents Hill.

The family hired attorney Kathryn Dobel, an expert in special education cases. She filed papers in 2002 demanding that Sequoia Union pay four years of tuition and the family’s costs for travel between Maine and California.
And by the time the boy graduated from high school in 2004, the Woodside case would stand as an icon of the troubled state of special education: parents and educators at odds, inequity in a system meant to equalize, and myriad rules so esoteric they’ve spawned a new specialty field for lawyers.

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