When students head back to school, most kids walk or ride the bus. But for some special education students whose families live in Illinois, school is a residential facility or boarding school in another state.
How many kids are we talking about? You might be surprised. When we asked Melissa Taylor, past president of the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Ed to take her best guess, she wasn’t even close.
“Okay, so I’m thinking the wealthier suburban schools probably do more than I think they do, so let’s say 200,” Taylor says.
Last year, it was 418, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
“Really? Wow. Yeah, that’s a lot,” Taylor says.
It’s higher than the previous year (397), but lower than the 2014-15 school year, when Illinois had 444 special education students living out of state.
Typically, these placements are the last resort, after the school and the family have tried all other options, like therapeutic day schools and residential facilities in Illinois. Special ed providers here say this state doesn’t have enough beds available for all the students who need residential care, especially for students with emotional disabilities or a combination of severe autism plus cognitive impairment.
One special education director, at a central Illinois school district, offered an example of a student who was placed out of state, at a residential facility called Great Circle, in St. Louis. She asked for her name to be withheld to protect the student’s privacy.
“I never want to take a child out of their home,” she says. “But when a student has two people with them all day at school and we still can’t keep them safe because they left 8th grade one size and came back as a freshman 6 inches taller and 80 pounds heavier, but yet their ability to be verbal about what they’re upset about, their ability to control their emotion, their ability to understand what’s happening to their body, all of those kinds of things are still the same, we can’t handle those with a much larger child.”
However, she says, not all outplacements are based on school safety. Sometimes they’re requested by parents. In her school district, she says, it’s not uncommon for parents to show up at the annual meeting to review their child’s annual Individualized Educational Program accompanied by an advocate, or a consultant. Often the advocate helps the team focus on the student’s needs, and achieve compromise. Other times, the director says, an advocate is there to help persuade the school’s special ed team to make whatever changes the parents desire in the IEP document.
She describes that attitude as: “My child has a special need, they have rights, and you owe me.”
But when what the parents want is an out-of-state placement, she encourages them to weigh whatever benefits that placement might bring against three things: “What’s the adverse effect of doing that, what’s the efficacy of doing that, and what are we hoping to get out of that placement?” she says. “Like what is so bad, or what do you truly feel like they cannot be provided in public school that they have to go to a horse ranch to get in Wyoming?”
Illinois doesn’t send students to Wyoming, but last year, eight Illinois students lived on a horse ranch in Montana and attended Yellowstone Public School. Almost 100 Illinois students went to Utah facilities with names like Waterfall Canyon Academy and Diamond Ranch. Another two dozen went to a school near Lake of the Ozarks nationally known for treating attachment disorders by pairing each student with a purebred golden retriever.
Who pays for these schools? We all do. For tuition, the home district kicks in their own school’s per capita cost times two, and the State Board of Education covers the rest, while room and board is paid with federal funds. That’s if the student’s home district agrees it’s an appropriate placement, and includes it in the student’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP.
But if the student’s parents can afford to pay the private facility’s costs upfront, they can place their child in the school of their choice, get their home district to approve it retroactively, and then collect reimbursement. This approach is called unilateral placement. If the parents and the school district don’t agree on the private facility, the parties end up in a sort of special ed court, in front of a hearing officer from the State Board of Education.
Phil Milsk, an attorney, worked as a hearing officer for six years estimates that 90 percent of the cases he heard resulted in a compromise, such as the school agreeing to approve the residential placement for a limited time, like one year.
Milsk has met many families with “kids whose needs are so significant that they need to be placed in these schools,” usually because of health or behavioral issues. But he acknowledges that most families can’t exercise this option.
“A lot of families don’t know what their rights are, so they don’t even know to unilaterally place, and then they wouldn’t have the resources to do it,” he says. “So you have two disadvantages there — not knowing you can do it, and then, even if you know you can do it, not having the monetary resources to afford it. That means that you have to rely on the district IEP team to recommend it, and you’re going to have a very hard time getting most school IEP teams to recommend out-of-state placement.”
Tom Tebbe, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Social Workers, used to work for one of the state’s wealthiest districts, and he concurs with Milsk’s assertion.
“Parents have the means to, one, send their student off, and they also have the means to hire an attorney to go through the due process and other steps along the way to argue with the district, to try and get the district to fund these placements,” he says. “They're trying to get every possible advantage for their students that they can. And I think other families would do the same if they had the means to do that. Wealth is a great unequalizer."
Illinois spent close to $6 million for out-of-state tuition in the 2017-18 school year. Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that 22 percent of that was paid on behalf of districts ranked in Tiers 3 and 4 of the state’s new school funding formula (that means those districts have at least 90 percent of the funding they need).
The same state budget line-item that funds out-of-state private facilities tuition is also used to fund private facilities inside Illinois. But it’s rarely robust enough to cover all the claims, so the state “prorates,” or cuts, reimbursement across the board. Last year, the cut was 20 percent.
If this budget line item were included in the school funding formula, the proration could be portioned out so that the lower tiers would receive full or nearly full reimbursement. Since it’s not in the formula, the proration hits every district the same, rich or poor.
Socioeconomic status doesn’t immunize anyone from disability, but it may affect which disabilities are treated. For example, among Illinois students receiving special education services, about 6 percent statewide are classified with “emotional disability” — or what used to be called “behavior disorder.” Using the districts getting the most money for out-of-state tuition as a snapshot, the top five Tier 1 districts (Chicago Public Schools, Rockford, Granite City, Alton and Belvidere) have 4 percent to 7 percent of IEP students labeled with emotional disability, while the top five Tier 4 districts (Barrington, Northfield, St. Charles, Maine Township and New Trier Township High) have 11 percent to 23 percent of IEP students labeled with emotional disability.
“You know, a lot of those families feel like they’re living under a microscope in some of these wealthier communities,” Milsk says. “Everybody kind of knows your business and you’re in a circle of people where you don’t want to admit that your kid has serious mental health issues or behavioral issues or whatever the case may be, and I think it’s hard for them too, in a little bit of a different way.”
Jennifer Smith, an attorney who has been representing school districts in such cases for 16 years, said that many families who seek residential care for their children typically make such requests after their child experiences a mental health crisis and psychiatric hospitalization, and medical professionals recommend a residential placement to ensure the student’s safety.
But when it comes to kids, it can be hard to know what’s the safest choice. That central Illinois administrator who sent a student to Missouri, to a school called Great Circle, later filed a complaint saying the student was physically abused, and the family withdrew him from the school.
“Students that go to residential are often non-verbal, at least for us,” she says, “so we are sending a non-verbal student to a residential facility where you cannot lay your eyes on them every day. You have to trust the people there. It’s a very scary thing to do.”