Saturday, January 15, 2011

Mixed reactions to NJ governor's autism education proposal

From the Asbury Park Press:

Gov. Chris Christie's proposal to create "centers of excellence" in each county to educate children with autism came as a surprise to educators and advocates, who had mixed reactions to the idea Jan. 14.

The head of a leading autism advocacy group hailed the concept as "visionary," while the director of a private autism school in Morris County said the plan could make it difficult for some private special-education schools, which rely on referrals from public school districts, to stay in business.

Christie (pictured) floated the idea Thursday night during a question-and-answer session at a town hall forum in Paramus, saying he planned to explore it further with his nominee to be the next state education commissioner, Christopher Cerf.

The governor said centralized autism schools in all 21 counties might be a cost-effective way to provide the services and expertise that many school districts aren't offering.

A handful of regional public autism schools already exist in some counties, including Monmouth, Middlesex, Mercer, Morris and Warren. Several dozen private schools in the state also specialize in autism.

Over the past decade, autism, a neurological disorder that hinders social interaction, has emerged as one of the chief challenges, and top cost-drivers, facing New Jersey's $3 billion-a-year special-education system.

The number of students classified with autism has doubled in that time, to nearly 12,000 statewide. New Jersey has the highest-known incidence rate of autism in the U.S. — 1 in 94 children, and 1 in 70 boys, according to a federal study.

In November, an Asbury Park Press investigation, "Special Care, Unknown Costs," found that, in the absence of curriculum and teacher training standards, the quality of autism programs varied widely from district to district, frustrating parents who are often desperate to get help for their children.

One mother told the Press she was using a bogus address to keep her teenage son in a district he doesn't live in, because it offered far more than what her home district provides.

In response to the Press' series, Assemblyman David P. Rible, R-Monmouth, has introduced a bill that, if signed into law, would create a task force of parents and educators to study ways to revamp the state's special-education system. Rible called Christie's proposal "intriguing."

"Some schools have excelled at creating special education programs; some have not. As a state, we can do better," Rible said in a prepared statement. "The governor's idea could relieve districts of the cost of running duplicative programs and eliminate the tough decisions many families face whether to accept subpar education for their child, move to another district, or pay for private schools."

Linda Meyer, executive director of Autism New Jersey, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Hamilton, said she wanted to hear more details but viewed Christie's proposal as "visionary."

"We have pockets of excellence here, but those public and private school programs that are evidence-based, where the staff and administration are trained, cannot serve every child with autism," Meyer said. She said county schools could "increase access to evidence-based programs."

Gary Weitzen, executive director of POAC Autism Services, a nonprofit group in Brick that conducts training programs for teachers and parents, is among those who feel strongly that the ideal place for autistic children to be educated is in their home district, where they can interact with their non-disabled peers.

Weitzen said his son, Christopher, 16, who has autism, has thrived at Brick Township High School. But Weitzen acknowledged that not every district can afford to offer a comprehensive program.

A properly run county school could help fill the void, particularly in the high school years, he said. But he said there is a "huge question mark" about how such a plan would work.

Neither the governor's office nor the state Department of Education could provide any details about the proposal Friday.

Some reacted warily to the governor's idea.

Cindy Lee Parker of Tuckerton said her 16-year-old son, Jacob, who has autism, has already changed schools a half-dozen or so times. The prospect of yet another move, to an untested county school, did not sit well with her.

"What model are you going to use, and who's going to set the standard for that?" she asked. "Who decides how each county is going to teach autistic children?"

Parker likened the plan to "shooting in the air and hoping we hit something."

Another critic of Christie's proposal was Deborah Lewinson, executive director and founder of the Allegro School, a private autism school in Cedar Knolls, Morris County.

Lewinson said a network of county schools inevitably would limit parents' access to private schools like hers, which have extensive experience and provide many after-school services that public schools can't match.

Lewinson, who has an adult autistic son, also doubts that county schools could do the job any cheaper than private schools. Allegro's annual tuition is $$82,352 per student.

The out-of-district tuition fee at Southern Regional High School in Stafford, where Jacob Parker is a student, is $85,000 per year.

"It's a very intensive, expensive program, no matter where you do it," Lewinson said, referring to the one-on-one instruction that many autistic students require.

But Maria Arnold, educational services director at the Douglass Developmental Center, which operates an autism school on the Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick, believes Christie's idea is worth exploring.

"There's such a large number of children being diagnosed on the spectrum, there are too many of them to serve, and not enough programs," Arnold said. "We turn children away, the private schools turn children away. It shouldn't really be a competition, it should be a partnership."