The city of New York hired expensive consultants to find ways to save money in the education budget. One of their suggestions was to fight parents of special needs children more aggressively.
The problem is this: school districts are required to provide special education students with free and appropriate public education. If the district does not offer appropriate services, they are required to pay for private services. According to the consultants, it may be cost effective for the city to spend money litigating with parents, rather than paying for private school tuition.
The consultants said it “was forced to pay millions of dollars in private school tuition for students that could have been adequately served by our public school system,” not because of the cases’ merits but “due to staffing level deficiencies.”
The city, the consultants wrote, has already acted on their advice, more than doubling the size of its special education legal team by adding five lawyers and a dozen paralegals. The effort, they estimated, will save the city $25 million a year in private school tuition.
Advocates of special education criticized the move. “I don’t think they are paying private school tuition because they don’t have good lawyers,” said Kim Sweet, the executive director of Advocates for Children. “I think they lose these hearings because they don’t have good programs.”
Ms. Sweet added, “I would rather see them pour resources into special education services than lawyers.”
So, the incentives are all wrong for the school district. They would rather fight with parents than provide schooling for children. This incentive-mismatch could be corrected if parents of special needs children were simply given a voucher: a flat sum of money that they could spend on their child's needs, however they saw fit. Then the school district would have no incentive to withhold information from parents in order to low-ball them into accepting the services they provide.
I wrote about this problem here, a couple of years ago.