High Costs, Diverse Outcomes for Educational Special Needs in Connecticut

in Region 18/Region 4/Special Needs

Sarah Tyszka’s son is in sixth grade, but reads at a preschool level.

He has dyslexia, a condition that typically requires one-on-one reading instruction to learn to read and write, according to the Dyslexia Society of Connecticut. Last year Tyszka’s son received one-on-one instruction, but this year his school does not have a teacher certified for that instruction.

“He clearly needs intense intervention to be successful, yet they lie and say he’s getting small-group instruction, when in reality that means he sits at a table of four in a classroom of thirteen,” Tyszka said. “He’s not learning to read in an environment like that, nor are the other kids.”

According to the Dyslexia Society of Connecticut, about 15 percent of children in Connecticut are dyslexic.

In 2016, the Connecticut General Assembly mandated as part of “An Act Concerning Dyslexia,” that by July 1, 2017, applicants for positions in remedial instruction in reading and language arts have completed “a program of study in diagnosis and remediation of reading and language arts that includes supervised practicum hours and instruction in the detection and recognition of, and evidence-based structure literacy interventions for, students with dyslexia.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that every school has hired a qualified remedial reading specialist.

“They’re looking into hiring a tutor for after-school hours because I found out my son wasn’t getting the one-on-one Orton Gillingham lessons he got last year,” Tyszka said. “I proceeded to have a fit, call a PPT and refuse their small attempt at teaching my son to read with an after-school tutor.”

Tyszka is on the verge of taking East Hartford School District to court.

About one percent of families with children with special needs end up either in mediation – at a cost to families of between $5,000 and $15,000 in legal fees — or in court, where the expenses typically begin at $50,000, according to Christine Lai, the executive director and co-founder of Special Education Legal Fund (SELF).

“Special Education Legal Fund helps to provide families below 300 percent of the poverty line with resources to navigate the special education process,” Lai explained. “The funds go directly to an attorney who assists the family.”

According to Lai, most of SELF’s clients have a child who has been failed for years by their school district. Like Tyszka’s son, they are in their teens and unable to read.

“Many of our families are looking to get their child into a school for dyslexia,” Lai said. “Teaching these children to read just can’t be done in the public school system, it’s impossible.”

Tyszka said she would agree to an out-placement if that’s what is needed.

“I’d be happy with either, as long as he’s getting one-on-one reading daily with someone trained to teach dyslexic kids, but ideally he should be out-placed so he’s not an alien among his peers like he is now,” Tyszka said. “He’s the only kid walking around school with a Chromebook and a Cpen. Of course, that wears on one’s self esteem and he gets teased because the other kids all know he can’t read.”

East Hartford Public Schools were unavailable for comment. 

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school districts can only place a child in a private placement if the schools cannot provide an appropriate program in-district.

SELF provides grants of up to $5,000 for legal fees to families as they fight for an appropriate education for their child. To date, SELF has provided assistance to families in 20 districts across Connecticut.

“About 60 percent of our families are headed by a single parent, 40 percent are below the poverty line itself and one-third of them speak another language,” Lai said.

Lai explained that SELF does not normally fund cases destined to end up in court, and typically even most families filing for ‘due process’ will reach a settlement through mediation.

“Plenty of families that have the means choose not to do it,” Lai said. “It can be a long time and it’s not easy. No one ever wants to go there. Most people don’t have the tenacity to deal with it and it’s very unpleasant.”

Apart from time, expense and the emotional hardship of a court process, the majority of hearings are won by the school district. Just three of fifteen hearings that were fully adjudicated in 2019 ended in favor of the family. And with the proper documentation, most families will likely receive most of their request through mediation, said Lai.

“If the family wants an out-placement and there is a history of failure by the school district… testing done by the district… testing done by an outside expert — all those things in place — the outplacement is relatively easy,” Lai said. “Often you benefit from the fact that the local district does not want you out there talking about what happened with your child.”

According to Lai, school districts don’t want other parents to know that a child previously receiving an inappropriate education is now enrolled in a school that costs $100,000 a year,

Fighting for your child’s special education can become a full-time job, said Jackie Staddon, a volunteer for Special Education Connecticut.

“At some point you might want to work with them. You have to co-parent your child with the school district, it’s like being divorced parents, and it can be very hard to do that if you’ve gone the route of a public hearing,” Lai said.

Each year school districts across the state spend thousands of dollars on legal fees for disputed individualized education plans for special education students, but these costs can vary dramatically from district to district and year to year.

In Old Saybrook during the 2018-19 school year, $839,049 was spent on legal fees while just $20,002 was spent on additional special education services provided to students. 

“This is one area of the budget that changes from year to year. It is hard to compare our numbers to other districts without knowing the backstory for all in 2018-19,” said Jan Perruccio, the superintendent of schools in Old Saybrook. 

The differences between Old Saybrook and two of its neighbors is stark. 

In the same school year in Lyme-Old Lyme, $7,156.50 was spent on legal fees related to special education while $900,466 was spent on a combination of additional services and out-placements for students. In Region 4 during the past school year just $2,074 was spent on legal fees but $1.47 million was spent on out-placements. 

When asked about these differences, all three school district superintendents said it there are too many factors to understand exactly what is making this large difference. 

“There are many variables that contribute to the cost of special education legal fees and student out-placements. These costs often vary on a case by case basis, depending on the individual needs of students and circumstances,” said Brian White, superintendent of schools in Region 4. “Additionally, both types of costs are subject to change from year to year as the needs of students in the district may change, making direct comparisons difficult.” 

Lyme-Old Lyme School Superintendent Ian Neviaser also said the costs are difficult to compare.

“That is very hard to say. I can only guess as to the differences, but maybe it could do with differences in attorney fees or budgeting processes. We budget gross while most other districts budget net,” Neviaser said. “The number of children is not a factor as out-placement costs vary widely. Therefore, I really cannot say why they are different.”