Independent Journalist

Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. He served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for then-Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin, and has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC.

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The Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) and the schools it serves spend up to $2 million annually—as much as $200,000 per student—to send selected students with profound disabilities to private residential schools in other states, according to data provided by OSDE.

Most of those students attend one private nonprofit school in Wichita, Kansas. This little-known program serves students from ages 5 to 21 who cannot be educated in regular public schools, often due to behavioral issues related to autism spectrum disorder. Their local school districts are thus relieved of the costly burden of trying to educate them without disruptions to the school budget or its learning environment.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was first passed in 1975 to mandate that all states provide a free appropriate education to all children with disabilities at no cost to parents. Any student suspected of having a disability that could interfere with that child’s learning must be evaluated and, if found to be disabled, be prescribed an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

In the most severe cases, some IEP students may be deemed high-needs cases. Oklahoma has received federal IDEA funds to set aside up to $2.5 million annually to serve those high-needs students, some of whom are deemed by IEP evaluators to merit placement in a residential educational setting.

Most of Oklahoma’s high-needs students are sent to Heartspring School in Wichita. “Most of our students have challenging behaviors that interfere with their academic, home and community life,” the Heartspring website says. Those behaviors include “aggression, self-injurious behaviors, tantrums, non-compliance, property destruction, etc.”

Todd Loftin, executive director of special education at OSDE, said the state pays a portion of the cost of residential placement of IEP students based on the sending district’s amount of state aid.

“For example, we might pay half of the cost for a student from Oklahoma City Public Schools, and 80 percent for one from another school,” he said.

Loftin said there are few schools like Heartspring, which usually has a waiting list and requires students to reapply each year. He said OSDE and local schools would prefer to send high-needs students to a residential facility in Oklahoma, but there is none.

“Directors in Oklahoma would be ecstatic if we had a program like they (Heartspring) have,” he said.

The IDEA high-needs funding is divided into two tiers.

Students classified as Tier I students are eligible for placement in an out-of-state residential facility.

Those classified as Tier II stay in Oklahoma and are placed in the school district receiving the Tier II funds. “To qualify for Tier II, a student must cost the district 3x the average per-pupil expenditure,” said OSDE spokesman Phil Bacharach. “The district then uses the funds for increased services for the student.” For fiscal year (FY) 2018, 178 students are classified as Tier II cases from 33 school districts, at a cost of $1,520,742.

 

High-Needs Student Placements, Tier I

Fiscal YearDistrictFacility
FY08  
$1,767,891.99  
7 students  
 CatoosaJudge Rotenberg Educational Center
 PeavineHeartspring
 NormanMelmark
 KeotaHeartspring
 Ponca CityHeartspring
 MorrisonHeartspring
 TecumsehHeartspring
   
FY09  
$1,707,718.67  
9 students  
 CatoosaAutistic Treatment Center
 EdmondRancho Valmora
 KeotaHeartspring
 Mid-DelHeartspring
 MorrisonHeartspring
 NormanMelmark
 PeavineHeartspring
 Ponca CityHeartspring
 TecumsehHeartspring
   
FY10  
$2,007,031.99  
11 students  
 CatoosaAutistic Treatment Center
 EdmondRancho Valmora/High Frontier
 EdmondHeartland
 Hydro-EaklyHeartspring
 KeotaHeartspring
 Mid-DelHeartspring
 MorrisonHeartspring
 NormanMelmark
 PeavineHeartspring
 Ponca CityHeartspring
 TecumsehHeartspring
   
FY11  
$2,054,248.33  
9 students  
 EdmondHeartland
 Hydro-EaklyHeartspring
 KeotaHeartspring
 Mid-DelHeartspring
 MorrisonHeartspring
 NormanMelmark
 PeavineHeartspring
 Ponca CityHeartspring
 TecumsehHeartspring
   
FY12  
$1,479,968.43  
9 students  
 Hydro-EaklyHeartspring
 KeotaHeartspring
 Mid-DelHeartspring
 MorrisonHeartspring
 NormanMelmark
 OkemahHeartspring
 PeavineHeartspring
 Ponca CityHeartspring
 TecumsehHeartspring
   
FY13  
$1,337,073.99  
7 students  
 KeotaHeartspring
 Mid-DelHeartspring
 NormanMelmark
 OkemahHeartspring
 Ponca CityHeartspring
 StilwellHeartspring
 TecumsehHeartspring
   
FY14  
$1,219,038.07  
7 students  
 StilwellHeartspring
 NormanMelmark
 KeotaHeartspring
 Ponca CityHeartspring
 OkemahHeartspring
 StillwaterHeartspring
 TecumsehHeartspring
   
FY15  
$1,305,296.48  
8 students  
 StilwellHeartspring
 NormanMelmark
 KeotaHeartspring
 OkemahHeartspring
 StillwaterHeartspring
 TecumsehHeartspring
 Broken ArrowHeartspring
 Broken ArrowHeartspring
   
FY16  
$1,044,701.62  
7 students  
 StilwellHeartspring
 KeotaHeartspring
 OkemahHeartspring
 Oklahoma CitySusan Wayne Center
 StillwaterHeartspring
 Broken ArrowHeartspring
 Broken ArrowHeartspring
   
FY17  
$1,058,016.72  
9 students  
 StilwellHeartspring
 KeotaHeartspring
 SulphurGreen Tree School
 OkemahHeartspring
 Oklahoma CityHeartspring
 StillwaterHeartspring
 TulsaHeartspring
 Broken ArrowHeartspring
 Broken ArrowHeartspring
   
FY18 (obligated)  
$752,800.09  
5 students  
 StilwellHeartspring
 YukonHeartspring
 StillwaterHeartspring
 Broken ArrowHeartspring
 Broken ArrowHeartspring

Source: Oklahoma State Department of Education

 

High-Needs Student Placements, Tier II

Fiscal YearNumber of Students ServedNumber of DistrictsAmount Obligated
FY08unknown21$1,759,151.93
FY09unknown29$2,126,805.62
FY10unknown26$396,505.99
FY119824$304,335.24
FY125119$838,416.60
FY139525$1,445,920.65
FY1410426$1,186,017.66
FY1510727$1,043,788.03
FY1613927$3,194,704.52
FY1715229$1,830,533.81
FY1817833$1,520,742.63

Source: Oklahoma State Department of Education

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