Funding for private school special education depleted for remainder of school year

Parents of students eligible for special education services in Medford area private schools received this letter stating that funding for private special education programs had been depleted. (Genevieve Grippo/KTVL)

Maisey Yates opened her mailbox Wednesday to find a letter from the Medford School District explaining that her Autistic son would no longer get the in-class speech therapy he needed.

The reason: no more money.

Yates' 11-year-old son Kian is one of 35 special education children who attend private schools within Medford's School District boundaries.

According to Tania Tong, Director of Special Education and Student Services for the Medford School District, MSD is required to fund special education programs for those students— up to an amount determined by the Oregon Department of Education.

That amount was about $50,000 for the 2018-2019 school year.

"It's called a proportionate share," said Tong. "In October of every year, we look at not only the children who attend Medford's schools who are eligible for special education, as well as students who are attending private schools and are eligible for special education."

But on March 6, those funds ran out. Special education programs in private schools, including speech and language therapy and consolation services, were immediately stopped for the remainder of the school year.

The letter sent by the district said it was an “increased number of students eligible for special education at private schools” that drained the funds.

Tong said this was the first time financing had been completely depleted before the end of a school year.

Yates said the letter was preceded with no warning that the money was close to drying up.

“They really are treated like second-class students,” she said.

Kian was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when he was two years old. He spent most of his education in special ed. classes in Medford's public schools.

After Kian’s academics and social skills showed he might be better suited in a traditional classroom, they decided to remove him from special ed.

“My fear was that he was going to go through all these years at school and not come out with an education,” she said. “I want him to have choices so that he can decide who he wants to be and what he wants to do.”

“I don’t want him to just go through a system so that he can be spit out on the other side,” she added.

However, contacting the schools about the switch proved difficult. According to Yates, she and her husband tried getting in touch with school officials a number of times, but either never heard back or couldn't get a straight answer about their options.

"It feels like you're advocating against a brick wall," she said. "I genuinely felt like we were not able to get a free and equal education within the district. There was no way to accomplish that without stepping outside of it."

After an unsuccessful meeting with school staff at the end of the last school year, the parents decided to enroll Kian in private school.

He now learns in a traditional classroom that was augmented by a half-hour of speech therapy each week— something there's no longer funding for.

"That's wild to me that one week they're going in and getting the services they're getting, and now they just don't get them," she said.

Yates said she is lucky to have the ability to provide Kian with private speech therapy, as well as an aid that accompanies him to school every day.

While she believes Kian will suffer from losing the weekly half-hour of therapy the district previously provided, she said she is more concerned for other special education students.

“We’re incredibly privileged [to be able to provide private options,] but I'm so aware that is not the case for other people that are in that system,” she said. “It hurts to think that their potential is being squandered.”

Tong said there is no question that the district allocates more special education services to public schools versus private schools.

The $50,000 set aside for private school special education funding this year was provided to them via the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA grant.

That same grant provided about $1.9 million for the 2,150 special education students within Medford’s public schools this year. In addition, the district receives about $15,400 in state funding for the majority of each of those students.

“I think the key difference that sometimes families don’t understand is the school district does not receive any funding from the state of Oregon if they’re enrolled in a private school,” she said.

Yates said if there isn’t a way to increase funding for private students, existing money needs to be spent more wisely.

“There’s merit to thinking about restructuring what’s happening,” she said.

According to Tong, the district consults with private schools to determine how special education funds will be spent each year.

She expects those schools will once again receive about $50,000 in the 2019-2020 school year, meaning special education students in private classrooms may have to make due with fewer services.

“That’s the conversation we’ll be engaging in. We’re trying to have meetings scheduled right now with each private school,” said Tong.

Current Medford School District Superintendent Doctor Brian Shumate is leaving his position in June. Yates hopes the incoming superintendent will make special education a priority.

The district is hoping to fill Shumate’s position by April, and has asked for the public’s input as they look for a new hire.

Anyone interested in sharing their thoughts is asked to fill out this survey.

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