By Faith Isbell
Andrea Smith wants the best education for her seven-year-old son, Liam.
“This is a child who stands at the front door, waiting and asking for the bus,” Smith said. “He loves school so much.”
Liam is no average student. According to Virginia’s Department of Education, Liam is one of nearly 18,000 students with autism in Virginia, where the rising cost of private special education is coming under scrutiny.
“People don’t understand that these children have value,” Smith said. “They basically think that they’re not going to amount to anything. It makes it hard for them to want to spend money on them.”
Liam attends the Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center (BRAAC) in Lynchburg. BRAAC is a nonprofit private education system licensed by the Virginia Department of Education that offers a highly structured program for students with learning disabilities and autism. Private schools for children with special needs, such as BRAAC, have received state funding under the Children’s Services Act (CSA) since 1993.
BRAAC serves 100 students, ages 2 to 22, across three locations: Lynchburg, Lexington and Roanoke, the center’s home base. Each location provides licensed staff and a small student-to-teacher ratio.
The CSA does not define a specific spending limit for the amount of money the state should use toward funding private special education. If a student is placed in a private special-education school, the state and local governments are responsible for the student’s tuition if the parents cannot afford to pay on their own.
Forming a work group
In the General Assembly’s 2017 session, lawmakers ordered a work group – in collaboration with education, social services and state budget officials – to examine the quality and costs of private special-education programs currently funded under the CSA.
“It certainly seems appropriate to ensure that students are being served most effectively and ensure the taxpayer’s dollars are being used most appropriately,” said Scott Reiner, who serves as the interim executive director of Virginia’s Office of Children’s Services.
But the General Assembly decision worries BRAAC Executive Director Christina Giuliano.
“We would not be able to decrease costs without decreasing the validity of our program,” Giuliano said. “It’s not something we can do.”
“Decreasing our staff would decrease our ability to individualize the program for our students and provide the level of education and care the students require,” she said. “We offer what we’re ethically bound to do.”
BRAAC-Lexington’s co-director David Shaw agrees. “This proposed bill is certainly a change for the special education environment,” he said,. “We are all learning together what the implications mean.” He added that the Lexington center is continuing its work with its current students as usual, “to provide them with the best education we can in partnership with their home schools.”
Tuition at BRAAC can cost $3,500 to $62,000 a year. Giuliano said the cost depends on the level of expertise and staff support each student requires – from the preschool program to specialized, one-on-one instruction.
“We work with some amazing school systems,” Giuliano said. “However, there is a certain point where we’re able to offer an individualized education that can rarely be done in a public school setting – simply due to staffing.”
BRAAC Lexington currently serves 10 students from Buena Vista, Rockbridge County and Augusta County. The center has four classrooms, where two to three students are placed at individual work stations for one-on-one instruction with a behavior technician. Each student follows an individualized plan — whether life skills, such as eating and brushing teeth, or communication skills.
Giuliano said BRAAC does its best to cover costs on its own – with fundraising events and grant writing – but is still reliant on CSA-mandated funding.
According to the Office of Children’s Services, the state currently spends just under $140 million on tuition for private special education placement — an increase of 40 percent from 2013. Overall, expenditures under the CSA have increased by 16 percent – from $314.2 million in 2013 to $364.1 million in 2016.
Virginia Department of Education figures indicate this difference can largely be attributed to the increasing number of students being diagnosed with autism: The department’s statistics show the number of autism diagnoses in public school children has multiplied by six since 2001.
Some Virginia lawmakers believe cost increases under the CSA need to be brought under control. During the 2017 General Assembly session, Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant and Del. John M. O’Bannon III, both Republicans from Henrico County, put forward budget amendments related to the CSA. Neither amendment was approved.
Fearing budget cuts
Andrea Smith, however, is still fearful of possible state budget cuts. She knows firsthand what can happen if a child with autism does not receive the proper education and care that private schools such as BRAAC offer.
In 2014, Smith and her family briefly moved to Howard County, Maryland. Liam was placed in an in-house special education program at his public school – far different from the specialized and controlled environment he was used to at BRAAC. He soon lost the ability to communicate and function, becoming withdrawn and aggressive.
“It failed Liam miserably. He lost every bit of who he was,” Smith said. “Every day was pure and utter hell. We could not continue to live that way.”
Two years later, Smith moved her family back to Lynchburg just so Liam could return to BRAAC.
“We’re so happy to be back,” she said. “He can function. He can be a person. BRAAC has been life-changing.”
The General Assembly’s work group is to submit a report to the chairmen of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees by Nov. 1, in advance of the next regular General Assembly session. Meanwhile, educators and parents alike are contacting state representatives and sharing their stories.
“I am grateful that [the amendments] did not pass, but our work is not done,” Smith said. “These kids’ lives are very much on the line.”