Source: New Jersey.com
Christian and Jahad Mayers were born twins, but they didn’t know it for years.
The boys, diagnosed with autism as infants, were unable to communicate and struggled to understand who the other one was, their mother, Cheryl, said. They fought each other, and wore diapers until they were 10 because they couldn’t say when they needed to use the bathroom.
“Everyone thought they were bad and needed punishing,” Cheryl Mayers said. “No one understood there was really something wrong with them.”
Convinced her boys would get lost in the mix of the Elizabeth Public Schools, Mayers turned to ECLC of New Jersey in Chatham, one of the state’s approximately 180 private schools for students with special needs. There, she found teams of therapists, smaller classes and the flexibility her twins needed.
In return for accepting students and providing them a specialized education, the private schools bill public schools for tuition. But a two-month Star-Ledger investigation found that lax state oversight allows the schools to spend money in ways that would not be tolerated in public schools.
“There are fiscal reasons to look at some of these schools more carefully,” said Peg Kinsell, policy director at the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network. “The problem, and why I always hesitate to have this conversation, is because it can’t just be about money.”
The state’s private special-needs schools have long been controversial because New Jersey’s public schools send away a higher percentage of students than any state in the nation.
Placements at the schools peaked five years ago and since have decreased because of the sputtering economy and efforts by public schools to keep more students in district, said Gerard Thiers, executive director of ASAH, an association representing the schools. He said some of those efforts have turned into “horror stories” because they were driven only by a desire to save money.
Political lobbying on behalf of ASAH totaled $49,114 in 2011 and 2012, state records show. But there’s a more powerful force behind why, historically, these schools have been insulated from serious scrutiny.
“The truth is these out-of-district programs exist for a reason, and that is parents and districts agree they are a good option for some students,” said Brenda Considine, coordinator of the N.J. Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform. “But that’s where things break down.”
Assessing how well the special education programs, including these private schools, help children is difficult, Considine said. Costs are hard to compare and little independent research exists on where students go and how well they perform after leaving high school, she said.
A recent study commissioned by New Jersey’s private schools and conducted by Johns Hopkins University professor Deborah Carran found special education students in the private schools fared better two years after graduation than those in public schools nationwide.
Carran said the study was a “good step” in the evaluation of programs for accountability, but it included only 140 students at 21 schools, a fraction of the annual enrollment.
“We spend millions on special education as a country, and we know very little about what we get,” Considine said. “It’s one of the most convoluted and complex issues, and that’s why lawmakers and Congress and major lobby groups leave special education funding alone.”
Mayers said her twins, now 21, graduated in June and work as productive adults at a department store in the Jersey Gardens mall.