Child and Adolescent Mental Health and Virginia Public Schools – Dangerous Children’s Services Act Changes Proposed

Credit JAMA Pediatrics, April 6, 2020

by James C. Sherlock

One of the key elements of state and local efforts to support children with behavioral health, educational disabilities, and other challenges is the Children’s Services Act (CSA) (the Act).

In education, its primary role has been paying for placement of children and youth with educational disabilities into private special education schools (PSES).

CSA funds support those students whose educations are judged by the public schools themselves to be too demanding for them to accommodate.

The local CSA Community Policy and Management Teams, appointed by the governing body of the participating local political subdivision, send their own children to those private schools.

I will describe Virginia’s network of PSESs in a follow-on article.

Changes proposed. In a 2020 report, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) had found a long list of seemingly disqualifying flaws in public school special education that would prevent them from accepting students with more severe disabilities than the ones they already try to serve.

Yet there is a movement to remove some severely troubled kids from PSESs back into public schools that have already admitted that they cannot properly serve them.

JLARC, in a disturbingly superficial report in that same year, recommended CSA money be taken away from PSESs and made available to public schools, which is not currently permitted under law.

And that all of the then-fungible CSA school money be administered by the Department of Education, not the Department of Health and Human Resources.

This recommendation was made in the face of the fact that JLARC, in both 2020 reports, admitted the public schools are not equipped to handle these children, much less for the average of 271 days a year they attend PSESs.

So some combination of progressive ed-school dogma, as yet undefined fairy dust and widely non-existent qualified mental health providers and trained special ed teachers are apparently to be sprinkled on the public schools to transform them to be ready to accept children whom they have already referred out to PSESs.

Most of the proposed changes are dangerous, dogmatic and thinly researched nonsense.

Background. The Children’s Services Act (CSA) was defined in Code of Virginia in 1992 in Title 2.2. Administration of Government, Subtitle II. Part B. Chapter 52.

It is a complex system.

  • In the execution of that law, there is in Subtitle I. Part D. Chapter 26 established a State Executive Council for Children’s Services;
  • In 2000, the Office of Children’s Services was established § 2.2-2649 to serve under the Secretary as the administrative entity of the Council and to ensure that the decisions of the council are implemented;
  • § 2.2-5201. established a State and local advisory team to advise the State Executive Council;
  • § 2.2-5204. established community policy and management teams appointed by the governing body of the participating local political subdivision. These include regional CSA Coordinators, members of Community Policy and Management (CPMT) and local Family Assessment and Planning Teams (FAPT).

Costs and budget language. Most of the CSA program management direction comes from budget language.

In FY 2021, CSA expenditures exceeded $204 million to provide PSES education for about 4,000 students in day schools and nearly 250 in residential schools. The average length of stay for private-day placements in 2021 was 271 days at an average daily cost of $181.

The average annual cost per student for day PSESs in FY 21 was $49,470.

CSA is a “fund to need” budget item and the program is mostly governed by the language in the budget. Here is that item in the 2022 budget.

I recommend you read it to get a sense of the complexities of the program.

PSES cost structures. To understand that large PSES day-school cost number, we have to understand the entirely different cost structure of PSESs compared to public schools.

As an example, one such private day school in Virginia Beach serves students with the following disability categories:

  • Autism
  • Developmental Delay
  • Emotional Disability
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Traumatic Brain Injury

It has on staff full time:

  • a principal,
  • a vice principal,
  • a licensed behavior analyst
  • two school therapists
  • seven Recognition and Prevention (RAP) mental health associates
  • ten other mental health associates, and
  • eight teachers for elementary, middle and high school.

That school has a maximum capacity of 86 students K-12 and hosts a summer program. It serves ages 5 to 22. That illustrates the expensive nature of the program. In a day school.

JLARC findings and recommendations. In November 2020, JLARC released a report on the CSA that was requested by the General Assembly, with a specific focus on PSES education.

The CSA program was created in 1992 to more efficiently and effectively serve Virginia children who require services from multiple programs. Services include community-based behavioral health services (e.g. outpatient counseling) for children in foster care or at risk of foster care placement and services delivered to students with disabilities who are placed in private special education day schools instead of public school.

In FY19, 15,656 children received services funded by CSA, the majority of whom were in foster care or private special education day school placements.

Children placed in private day schools typically have an emotional disturbance, autism, or some other childhood mental disorder, and exhibit behaviors that public schools have difficulty managing.

JLARC noted “lack of insight into tuition rates has raised questions about their reasonableness and the schools’ profits.” But it found that “on average, private day schools earned a 6 percent net profit in 2019.”

But it wanted CSA money available to public schools. It wrote:

Restricting use of CSA funds to private day school services could prevent children from receiving comparable services in a less restrictive setting.

In most cases, students who are placed in private day schools have behaviors that are too severe or challenging for public schools to manage effectively.

It found that “private day school performance expectations should be comparable to those for public schools” and frowned on their accreditation process.

The report discussed the difference between

  • “mandated” children (in or at risk of being placed in foster care and children with disabilities who require placements in private day schools) and
  • “non-mandated” children.

The CSA program must cover these “mandated” children at a “sum-sufficient” level, meaning the program must pay for the entire cost of services.

But, the report found:

Not serving non-mandated children may exacerbate two problems that the CSA program was designed to address—delayed intervention in at-risk children’s circumstances and geographical disparities in service availability. About 18 percent of Virginia’s children live in localities that do not serve non-mandated youth.

As you might have guessed, local funds matching is required for non-mandated children.

JLARC made recommendations, including:

Legislative action

Allow funds reserved for private special education day school services to be used to pay for special education services and supports delivered in the public school setting, either to prevent children from being placed in more restrictive settings like private day school, or to transition them back to public school from more restrictive settings.

Transfer funding for private special education day school services from the CSA program to VDOE.

Direct VDOE to annually collect and publish performance data on private day schools that is similar to or the same as data collected and published for public schools.

Direct the Board of Education to develop and promulgate new regulations for private day schools on restraint and seclusion that mirror those for public schools.

Require all local CSA programs to serve all children identified as eligible for CSA funds, including those categorized as “non-mandated.”

Direct OCS to more actively monitor and work with local CSA programs that need technical assistance or are underperforming.

Executive action

Require local programs to measure, collect, and report data on timeliness in service provision and target assistance to programs with the greatest timeliness concerns.

The full list of JLARC recommendations is here.

We are apparently to get SOL performance data on CSA-funded PSESs that serve students who as a group have far more developmental and mental health issues than the student populations of any public school.

Question: What happens when some of them outperform some public schools on SOLs?

The CSA Biennial Report. The Northam Administration, at the behest of the Democratic General Assembly, took direct aim at the CSA program and on its way out the door published a “Progress Report of the Children’s Services Act.

It cites “an extensive body of evidence” that “indicates that long-term outcomes are improved when children are safely maintained in their families, schools, and communities.”

No references are provided.

No mention is made of the fact that the majority of CSA-funded PSESs are day schools who keep them from their “families and communities” no more than public schools.

No mention that public schools cannot provide the residential services that are prescribed for some of the students.

They “modified the objective to include reviewing and revising policies through equity and trauma-informed lenses” and the workgroup had “specific expertise in equity and trauma-informed policy analysis.”  Good to know.

It is that “Progress Report” that they turned over to the Youngkin administration.

I have asked for input from that administration on what they plan to do going forward and will report it when I get it.

Further notes on JLARC/progressive approaches.

The Ed School poison pill

Creating as noted in the biennial report a “Center for Evidence-Based Partnerships in Virginia” focused on improving behavioral health interventions across all state agencies and their local counterparts may be either a good idea or a bad one, depending on who runs that center. It sounds like an ed-school special.

Asking it to “facilitate partnerships between state agencies and institutions of higher education,” meaning the state-funded and race-obsessed graduate schools of education, confirms that suspicion.

It was a typical Northam administration move, and a poison pill.

Virginia’s graduate schools of education, in addition to feathering their own nests for years with public policy that requires teachers and administrators to take their very expensive training, have been the sources of most of the policy problems already plaguing the public schools.

I note that perhaps the most crazy left (a tough call) of those, VCU, is the initial “partner” with state agencies.

Opposition to removing the most troubled students from public schools

I absolutely understand and support the necessity of removing some students from the public schools system for more focused, supportive, safer, and intensive care and education that can be provided than if they were to remain in the general public school population. JLARC had a different idea.

Ignore broad impacts, costs and qualified labor supply issues in public schools

I have seen no cost projections for the still-vague plans to replace the private schools with public school services. Nor have I seen a projection of who would provide these services given the known scarcity of supply of qualified mental health providers in most areas of the state.

As another data point, there are fewer total of these PSESs, including both day schools and residential schools that take different types of kids and specialize in different disabilities, than the number of school divisions in Virginia.

So, any talk of returning these kids to the school divisions has to be informed, and has not been so far, by that fact. It went un-noted in the JLARC report.

Anti-capitalist nonsense

The anti-capitalist left, led by the ed schools, opposes private schools because they make a profit. The JLARC report made a big deal of profit margins.

I suspect that, profit margins included, private companies provide these services cheaper (see example above) than could government once the total costs of government facilities, staff and services to replace them are factored in, even if local governments had a ready supply of qualified providers, which most do not.

Bottom line.

I can find no feasibility and cost/benefit analyses — much less estimates of dollar costs — for the changes recommended.

What we have been offered is dogma not only without boundaries, but with none being imagined.

I absolutely oppose the recommendation of JLARC to “allow CSA funds to pay for special education services and supports delivered in the public school setting” unless and until those assessments have been made.

More broadly, any attempt to put these more than 4,000 students with, as JLARC pointed out, “emotional disturbance, autism, or some other childhood mental disorder, and (who) exhibit behaviors that public schools have difficulty managing” back into the public schools.

At unknown costs.

About which proponents are incurious.

There they would encounter and potentially exacerbate the problems of safety, order and discipline that the schools are already facing.

That is, to put a label on it, crazy.