Since I do CPSE (Committee for Preschool Special Education) work for children 3-5 years of age, with physical, learning, developmental and other disabilities, this is something to be aware of:
Confronting reports of skyrocketing costs and outright fraud in New York State’s preschool special education system, a group of companies that provide services to children with disabilities is calling for mandatory new audits, clearer regulations and a strict code of conduct with tough penalties for violators.
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The preschool special education system, which serves 60,000 children annually, costs Albany and local governments more than $2 billion a year. It is far more expensive per child in New York than in other states, The New York Times reported in June. Yearly bills exceed $200,000 per child in some cases. New York City’s spending has nearly doubled in just six years.
Unlike other states, New York relies almost entirely on outside contractors to deliver services to 3- to 5-year-olds with physical, learning, developmental and other disabilities. One factor in the rising costs, The Times reported, is that limited oversight has been exploited by some of those contractors, including both nonprofit and for-profit companies.
Audits released this summer by the state comptroller’s office have highlighted contractors who looted millions from the program by giving employees no-show jobs or reimbursing themselves for things like luxury cars, out-of-state living expenses, weekend-home renovations or their children’s bedroom furniture.
Two companies have been shut down in conjunction with the audits, and at least four contractors have been charged criminally.
The scrutiny has prompted one trade group for preschool contractors to come forward with a set of far-reaching proposals to root out malfeasance.
“Even one provider who willfully violates the public trust is one provider too many,” said Steven Sanders, the executive director of the group, Agencies for Children’s Therapy Services Inc., which represents more than two dozen preschool special education and “early intervention” contractors. (Its members, however, have not been among those audited by the comptroller’s office this year.)
In a letter to John B. King Jr., the state education commissioner, Mr. Sanders, a onetime chairman of the State Assembly’s Education Committee who has been a lobbyist for several years, proposed requiring that every contractor be audited every two years. Audits now occur many years apart, if at all, and critics say unscrupulous contractors view the minimal risk of penalties as the cost of doing business.
Moreover, audits are now usually limited to identifying financial irregularities, but Mr. Sanders said they should also be used to verify that children are receiving the education services they were prescribed, and from qualified teachers and therapists.
“It makes it far more difficult to game the system,” Mr. Sanders said of the proposal in a telephone interview. “If every taxpayer knew they were going to be audited every two years, it would cut down to almost zero the amount of tax cheating.”
Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the State Education Department, would not address Mr. Sanders’s proposal but said the department planned “to discuss the preschool special education audit findings and potential actions that could be taken to address them with the Board of Regents,” which sets education policy for the state.
Mr. Sanders also proposed that contractors be assessed a fee of up to $1,000 for each audit. Though he acknowledged that such audits cost tens of thousands of dollars apiece, he called it an important step. “We’re willing to put some of our own skin on the table,” he said.
Many of the group’s proposals would require state legislation. Until now, city and state education officials have complained that influential lobbyists for contractors, including Mr. Sanders, have blocked reform efforts. But Mr. Sanders said that articles by The Times and audits by the state comptroller’s office had prompted his group to take action, in part to protect the industry’s reputation from further damage.
He also called for requiring contractors to adopt codes of conduct, and then embodying the best of those rules into state regulations with serious penalties for violators, including fines, suspension or debarment.
The group’s other proposals included clarifying the state’s manual for what expenses are reimbursable; setting up a permanent advisory council to provide feedback, ideas and advice to the State Education Department; and shifting the preschool special education system onto the same computer system that the State Health Department has begun using for early intervention for children under 3, so those with special needs can be tracked from birth until kindergarten.
One of the group’s ideas, though, was aimed not at curbing abuse but at achieving a new level of accountability. Mr. Sanders called for requiring “exit evaluations” of students before they leave the preschool special education system for kindergarten at age 5.
These evaluations could help gauge the relative effectiveness of the varying methods used to address children’s disabilities.