As Virginia routes more students with disabilities to private schools, costs are soaring

As Virginia routes more students with disabilities to private schools, costs are soaring
Virginia places more students with disabilities outside their local public schools than 37 other states — a trend that’s dramatically increased spending on specialized private schools over the past decade. (Source: Pixabay)

Virginia places more students with disabilities outside their local public schools than 37 other states — a trend that’s dramatically increased spending on specialized private schools over the past decade.

The non-residential programs — more commonly known as private day schools — have been a source of frustration for lawmakers over the past several years as more and more state spending has gone toward the cost-intensive model. Costs have more than doubled from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2019, soaring from $81 million to $186 million.

It’s led to numerous efforts within the state’s General Assembly, including an unsuccessful bill in the 2020 legislative session that would have directed the Virginia Department of Education to launch a pilot program aimed at transitioning some private day students back to public schools. The past two budget cycles have also included funding for studies to examine private day tuition rates.

The continuing scrutiny prompted lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission to order a study of the programs, which are ostensibly geared toward students with more severe behavioral or learning disabilities that prevent them from being served by their local public schools.

But the JLARC study, presented on Tuesday, found that Virginia’s funding policies don’t encourage public schools to develop their own capacity to serve higher-need students. At the same time, the reported number of children with more severe disabilities has increased — leading to growing enrollment at private day schools and soaring state costs, which more than doubled between 2010 and 2019.

“Compared to other states and its federal goal, Virginia places a lot of children in out-of-school placements, which is primarily made up of students in private day school,” said Stefanie Papps, a senior legislative analyst for JLARC. “According to the special education directors we interviewed, [teams] are sometimes forced to place a child in private day school because their district lacks the resources or the capacity to serve the child in the public school setting.”

Understanding how and why Virginia devotes state spending to specialized private schools requires some background knowledge on its Children’s Services Act program, first created in 1992 as a way to merge and streamline multiple state agencies that provide services to at-risk children — including those in foster care and those with disabilities.

Under the program, which has its own dedicated funding in the state budget, children are separated into “mandated” and “non-mandated” categories depending on their level of need. The “mandated group” includes children in foster care, children at risk of being placed in foster care and children whose individualized education program, or IEP — a document developed by public schools for students with disabilities — calls for placement at a private day school.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.