State to cut reimbursements for residential special ed

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The state is running out of money to pay for special education students sent to residential therapeutic programs, and local districts could be stuck with the bill.

One reason for the shortfall may be due to a ripple effect that has put an extra burden on the state’s coffers. As WBEZ reported in late December, the state Department of Human Services has dramatically cut its approvals for similar services (to 11 children in 2013 compared to 124 children in 2006), so some parents are taking the drastic step of abandoning their children to the state in order to get their children the needed residential psychiatric care.

Other parents may be turning to special education placements from schools, in lieu of DHS placements. The number of students placed in residential special education programs rose 23 percent in just the last two years, to 503 in the 2012-13 school year from 410 in 2010-11. Room and board costs have also increased. And this year, federal dollars for special education were cut 5.5 percent as a result of the budget sequester. As a result, residential service costs will likely be far higher than the $29.5 million the state has in its budget. Local districts would be stuck with the rest of the tab – likely tens of millions of dollars. (Only a small number of the students come from Chicago – 21 in 2010-11, 19 in 2011-12, and 23 in 2012-13.)

State spokeswoman Mary Fergus says most students are placed in residential programs because of emotional disabilities or autism. In recent years, diagnoses of autism have risen significantly. The decision to place a student is generally made by his or her IEP (Individual Education Plan) team.

Historically, the state has covered 95 to 100 percent of the cost of the programs. Last year, that percentage fell to 91.6 percent. But for the 2013-14 school year, the state expects it will only be able to cover 60 percent of the costs. Illinois State Board of Education Superintendent Christopher Koch first announced the reimbursement cut in his Nov. 25 weekly message to school districts.

Fewer services all around

Bridget Helmholz, governmental affairs consultant for the Illinois Association of Private Special Education Centers, says she believes one reason for the increase in residential placements is the squeeze at the Department of Human Services.

“When that avenue is shut off, there’s a reduction in the availability of those grants. People are going to use whatever avenue they have at hand,” Helmholz says.

Marlin Livingston, president and CEO of Cunningham Children’s Home in Champaign-Urbana, says he is worried that state funding cuts will discourage districts from helping students get needed services.

Livingston’s agency serves just two or three special education students at a time, who typically stay for a year and half. Some of the students are placed in residential education programs after going through several psychiatric hospitalizations.

“We are concerned with children who are not finding success at home and in school. Where are they going to go, if in fact they don’t have access to that funding?” Livingston says.

 “Rarely would private insurance pay for this type of treatment beyond 12 or 15 days,” he adds. “[State funding] is in some cases the only opportunity where parents can get the help their kids need.”