Gov. Chris Christie has proposed creating additional specialized public schools for educating children with autism in New Jersey, a departure from the current practice in many communities of integrating those children into neighborhood schools.
The governor proposed creating “centers for excellence” in every county, suggesting that such schools could save money for districts and ensure a higher quality of instruction. He told the audience at a town-hall-style meeting in Paramus on Jan. 13 that “the start-up costs of these programs, if you do it district-by-district, are mind-blowing and the quality is variable.”
Parents and advocates are split over the idea of creating specialized schools for children with autism, reflecting a larger debate nationally over whether those children are best served in separate programs or in general-education classes.
Critics of the idea say that children with disabilities gain valuable academic and social skills from interacting with their peers without disabilities, and also develop closer ties to their communities.
“We’re horrified at this suggestion to have another segregated setting for children with autism in every county in New Jersey,” said Diana Autin, executive co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, a nonprofit group that assists families. “It would also send a message to parents that children with autism can’t be included.”
But Linda Meyer, executive director of Autism New Jersey, a nonprofit advocacy and educational group, said Mr. Christie’s proposal for specialized autism schools would provide a much-needed alternative for some families. Many districts, she said, lack the staff, training and resources to educate children with autism.
“What I see is the governor has a vision to expand the continuum of options for our students,” Dr. Meyer said. “There are currently not enough high-quality school options for children with autism. Not every child is being educated in an effective program.”
The number of New Jersey students classified as having autism has grown rapidly, to 13,358 in 2010 from 8,490 in 2006, according to state education statistics.
Mr. Christie’s proposal would reverse recent state efforts to encourage districts to develop their own autism programs. For instance, in 2007 the Corzine administration awarded $15 million in grants to 55 school districts to establish or expand existing autism programs.
More than three-quarters of New Jersey’s 21 counties already have separate special-education schools, including several that specifically serve children with autism; these schools are financed by county taxes and tuition fees paid by the districts sending the children. But some of these schools have been criticized by parents as failing to provide more effective instruction than their home districts.
Renay Zamloot, a parent who is an advocate for students with disabilities, said the most effective schools for children with autism tend to be expensive to run because they have highly trained and experienced staff members and low staff-to-student ratios, to provide intensive, individualized services.
“I’m concerned that the motivation for these schools is purely financial,” Ms. Zamloot said of Mr. Christie’s proposal. “It could lead to a whole population of students being deprived of the intensive, data-driven services that they require to make meaningful progress.” The governor’s office and the state Education Department did not provide details about Mr. Christie’s plan.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
From The NY Times:
Posted by BA Haller at 11:23 AM