Nassau County school districts lag far behind the rest of the state and the nation in placing preschoolers with special needs in integrated classrooms, opting instead for costly private programs — services that could be brought within systems through expanded universal prekindergarten, Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos said in a new report.
Less than a quarter of the county’s 3- and 4-year-olds with disabilities — 22 percent — were learning alongside those without disabilities, compared with 43 percent in the state and 42 percent nationally, according to the report released Friday.
The majority of preschoolers with disabilities in Nassau attend preschool in private special education centers. Federal guidelines say that preschool students with special needs benefit most when taught in early childhood settings integrated with typically developing, age-appropriate peers.
In 2014, Nassau County served 5,249 preschoolers with special needs at a total cost of $100.7 million. The average cost per student was $19,186, but private center-based programs charge as much as $52,000 per child, according to the report.
“If you marry this endeavor with universal pre-K you can reduce cost and have higher availability and more integration,” said Maragos, whose office has for months been calling for more pre-K dollars from the state.
The report comes as the state is providing districts with more funding for full-day school for 4-year-olds, and as experts debate how best to implement the program.
In October, Maragos said Nassau County school districts were being shortchanged $77 million in state money for prekindergarten when compared with the funding allocated for New York City, where the number of public pre-K spots has quadrupled in the last two years.
The cost of preschool special education is shared between the county and the state. The county pays 40.5 percent and the state pays the remaining 59.5 percent to educate children with special needs who are between the ages of 3 and 5.
School districts begin paying for and educating special needs students in kindergarten. Placements are determined by special education committees comprising educators, parents and administrators within each district.
The state Education Department annually develops rates for center-based programs based on enrollments and actual costs, paying the private contractors per pupil. The report found tuition rates paid to these providers for contracted center-based preschool special education ranged from $19,694 to $52,353 for 10 months of full-day instruction and from $27,169 to $52,156 for 10 months of half-day instruction. The report used rates from the 2012-13 academic year.
Maragos could not quantify the savings, if any, of bringing preschool special education into the school districts. He said expanding pre-K in the districts would give parents another option.
When asked about possible cost savings, state education officials said in-district, public programs often are more costly than the private programs, assuming the level of services are maintained. Depending on a student’s individualized education program, which is a federally mandated plan for every student with a disability, the services required could cost more to provide through the public schools.
“It’s such an individualized world in special ed because each child is different,” said Laurie Scimeca, who is the Island Park district’s director of pupil personnel services and in charge of special education there.
The system was cited in Maragos’ report for having the highest rate of preschool special education integration — 49 percent — among the 53 Nassau districts that serve elementary students. Island Park is among the smallest systems in Nassau, enrolling some 700 students in kindergarten to eighth grade.
This is the second year the district is operating full-day, universal pre-K. The new program is available to all 4-year-olds and has a current enrollment of 60, offering greater opportunity for integration for students with special needs, Scimeca said. It also allows the district to screen other children for learning disabilities, a service for which the district is not getting reimbursed, she said.
The 7,400-student East Meadow school district had the lowest rate of integration of preschool special education children, at 3 percent, the report said.
Some parents worry that changing to in-district programs could mean their children would lose out on the intensive therapy provided in some of the private specialized schools, however. Nassau has a higher concentration of such private special education preschool programs than elsewhere in the state.
“I think it depends on the child and the disability,” said Jeanine Tucci, 47, of North Bellmore. Her daughter, Olivia, 5, started kindergarten this year in their home district after having attended Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf for preschool. Tucci credits the specialized school with bringing her daughter, who has moderate to severe hearing loss, up to grade level.
“It is a full day of therapy, it’s not getting pulled out for an hour,” Tucci said. “Getting up to speed in the younger ages is critical. Without that intensive therapy, I think she would’ve missed out on a lot.”