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Connecticut: "Dramatic" autism increase in schools; "increased awareness" cited

Nov 29, 2021, CT Examiner: Connecticut Schools Face Tricky Balance of Costs, Staff and Services for Special Ed https://ctexaminer.com/2021/11/29/connecticut-schools-face-tricky-balance-of-costs-staff-and-services-for-special-ed/

A decade of rising costs for special education and increased student need are facing a staffing shortage that is frustrating efforts both by parents to provide suitable services for their children and by local districts needing a balanced budget. According to state data, the total number of students in special education has increased from 63,482 in 2010-11 to 79,058 in 2020-21. Also increased is the percentage of students who are in need of special education — from 11.6 percent of the student population to 15.9 percent over the same time period. One of the most dramatic increases is in diagnoses of autism, which increased by 79 percent between 2010-11 and 2020-21, according to state data. Autism now makes up 13.3 percent of students with disabilities in the state of Connecticut. Dr. Rob Keder, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, said the increased diagnosis of autism could be a function of increased awareness among the people closest to the children. “It could be parents are more aware. It could be that the primary care person is referring and screening more and … it could be that people are stronger advocates,” Keder said. Tracy Sinclair, an assistant clinical professor of special education at the UConn Neag School of Education, agreed. … Sinclair said that one of the challenges with autism is the range of supports these students need. … But the cost of these services presents a huge challenge to districts, particularly as the number of students with special needs makes up a growing percentage of the total student population. … “I say that as a clinician, I try to be impartial … what does research or evidence suggest that a child needs? But we have to remember that a school district’s job is to figure out how to make a budget work for a diverse population,” said Keder. Ian Neviaser, superintendent of Lyme-Old Lyme schools, said he believes that districts are trying more and more to provide services within the district rather than outplace pupils. He said that the cost to a district for a single outplacement can range from $60,000 to $400,000 each year based on the needs of a student. The state does reimburse districts for a portion of their special education costs through two primary grants, one of which will reimburse districts for students who need services at significant cost. But the state will only reimburse costs that exceed 4.5 times a district’s per-pupil expenditures. That grant is also capped — meaning that even districts that qualify may not receive the full reimbursement. In 2019-20, Lyme-Old Lyme outplaced two special education students, at a cost of about $523,000 in tuition, according to state data. The district was responsible for about $521,000 of that amount, according to the 2021-22 budget booklet. Craig Cooke, superintendent of schools in Madison, said that while the administration tries to keep students in the district as much as possible, an outplacement is sometimes unavoidable based on the student’s needs. In 2019-20, Madison outplaced 19 students, which cost $2.56 million in tuition. … Cooke said one of the biggest cost drivers is that private facilities have tended to increase their rates between 5 and 10 percent yearly. He said that the increase in students with special needs has also meant the district has had to hire more special education teachers. … But the costs continue to rise. In Guilford, the costs for special education tuition, transportation and special services to the district rose from $3.4 million in 2010-11 to about $5.5 million in 2020-21, a number which Freeman thinks would be closer to $8 million if the district had not created programs that allowed these children to remain in the public schools. But, he said, the number of students in need of special education hovers at between 11 and 12 percent of the student population, and it does cost money to staff the in-district programs. …