Lawsuits, Fiscal Stress and the Autism Epidemic

Junior Matthews with his mother and father, Gregory and Tonie Matthews. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Gregory  “Junior” Matthews, Jr., 16, has been diagnosed with severe autism. He is nonverbal and classified as disabled. Providing for his education is very expensive. His parents, who until recently lived in Henrico County, sought to send him to the Faison Center, which specializes in educating children with severe autism. But Henrico County balked at its share of the cost — about $23,000 annually, covering about one-third of the tuition. (The state covers the rest.)

The Henrico County School Board filed a lawsuit February to overturn a hearing officer’s decision that the county had not been meeting the boy’s needs and should pay to send him to a private school that could. Now a federal judge has dismissed the lawsuit, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

School officials argued that the school had made progress working with young Matthews. But his parents, assisted by special education advocate Kandise Lucas, insisted that the special education arrangements were inadequate.

The RTD article touches upon the financial stakes involved for the Henrico County school system, which mirrors the challenges faced by school districts across Virginia. The county spent nearly $1 million last year handling special education disputes, ten times the sum spent in fiscal 2015. Concerned about the rising cost, the county hired an additional county attorney at the cost of $90,000 annually to focus on special education.

The incidence of autism is increasing nationally, and it’s putting both families and school systems under increasing financial strain. It is perfectly understandable that the Matthews are seeking the best possible treatment for their son. If Junior is nonverbal at the age of 16, I think it is fair to assume that he will not be capable of living independently and supporting himself any time soon, thus posing a huge burden — perhaps a life-time obligation — on his parents. They love him, and they want whatever help they can find for him. At the same time, Henrico is struggling to pay for the increasing number of children with disabilities.

In fiscal 2016, Henrico reported 6,563 students with disabilities, including 763 with autism. That’s up from 5,935 students with disabilities in 2001 and only 159 with autism. While some children with autism can be mainstreamed successfully in classes with other students, many require special assistants to work with them or require self-contained classes within the school system. All of these extra measures require additional resources, but presumably not as much as the schools’ share of sending children to the Faison Center.

The system creates a financial incentive for Henrico County to steer children with autism into the educational setting that costs the school district the least money, which is in the schools. The system also provides for a lucky few children to gain access to the highly resource-intensive setting of the Faison Center. If such an option is available, it should come as no surprise that financially strapped parents, who could never afford such a level of service on their own and are often egged on by autism activists, would agitate to get their children into such a program. The system is designed for conflict.

One theoretical alternative might be to mainstream more children with autism — to pretend more kids are OK and place them into the least expensive setting of all, classrooms with “normal” kids. (I put “normal” in quotes for fear that I might be unwittingly engaging in politically incorrect speech. Permissable language evolves so rapidly it’s hard to keep up, and I don’t have a very good PC antenna.) But that creates a different line of conflict if children with autism are more prone to outbursts and disruptions that detract from teaching time. Less teaching time translates into weaker academic performance and, potentially, to lower Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores, and to political pressure in response to lower scores.

All bureaucratic organisms are prone to “cover your ass” behavior, and Henrico County is no exception. The special education lawsuits are one indicator of what is happening largely out of public view. Another indicator is the more therapeutic approach to school discipline, designed in response to Department of Justice orders to reduce the number of suspensions and other disciplinary actions that disproportionately affect minorities and children with disabilities. African-Americans account for about 35% of the Henrico public school student body, 50% of students with disabilities, and 75% of children given out-of-school suspensions for disciplinary infractions.

How all the legal and bureaucratic imperatives interact to affect school spending and educational outcomes is poorly understood. For whatever reason — perhaps for fear of being deemed politically incorrect and bringing down the wrath of the Twitter Outrage Mob — school officials are not forthcoming about the nature of the problem. But you can count on Bacon’s Rebellion to continue exploring the topic and asking the uncomfortable questions.

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4 responses to “Lawsuits, Fiscal Stress and the Autism Epidemic

  1. Excellent post, Jim. How ironic, learning in many public schools is going down the tubes for most all kids, which triggers vast sums demanded of new schools, and elaborate specialized programs, yet few want to quietly go about finding out what are the real problems, and how we might solve them. Thanks Jim.

  2. Thank you for this post. It’s appropriate at Christmas-time to look squarely at a heart-rending social dilemma like this one and think about what, in the best of all worlds, we can afford to do.

    Caring for autistic kids is at the intersection of health and education, two of humanity’s greatest social concerns. Even conservatives, even libertarians believe government should have a major role in health and education, but these are open-ended tasks — the questions, as always, are: what goal can reasonably be achieved, and how should responsibility for pursuing that goal be allocated. In this instance, what level of productivity and happiness should we even try to provide every autistic child, and what portion of that cost should be borne by the parents versus the government, and as for the government’s share, how should that responsibility be balanced against government’s larger responsibility for the education and health of all its citizens? These are as much moral as governmental choices. Given the limited resources of even the wealthiest nation on Earth, we have to say “no” sometimes — and we should have a predictable and rational basis for doing so, or else the naysayer becomes another of those bureaucratic, “arbitrary and capricious” processes that run amuk (and invite the “Twitter Outrage Mob” to do their thing).

    We start with the assumption that everyone should have equal opportunity to obtain an education and to stay healthy; but people’s needs obviously differ. I think we’re approaching a national consensus in favor of some level of universal health care, and some level of access to secondary and college education without undue parental or personal indebtedness along the way. The social commitments embodied in the law, in the SSA and Medicare and the ADA and the ACA, in State-funded education and Pell Grants, are far from consistent in how they implement that evolving consensus. Providing for kids with severe disabilities is a test of how far the current consensus will carry us.

  3. I do appreciate Jim discussing the subject and I’m interested in the private versus public approach even though the public pays.. the question is – is this something best done in a public school setting or a more specialized setting and which is more cost-effective?

    Oh, and I’d be MORE THAN FINE if it was determined that the private sector could deliver these services more cost-effectively that public schools. I’d welcome it.

    ” perhaps a life-time obligation — on his parents. ”

    well I don’t know… about 1/3 of MedicAid is kids and another third is disabled -both kids and adults.

    Back in the day- parents would essentially decide to have the State “institutionalize” their kids when they could not meet their needs and neither could the schools. Some called it “warehousing” but the point here is that taxpayers are going to pay – no matter which path is chosen,

    correct?

  4. One of the reasons that Fairfax County Public Schools give to support the many centers, both within and without a standard public school building, for children with severe disabilities is to avoid the need to pay for expensive third-party services. Conceptually it makes sense given the size of the school-age population. But one still needs to review and analyze the numbers.

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