In a prekindergarten class at the Webster School here, occupational-therapist assistant Ashley Tarentino leads five children in a round of “The Wheels on the Bus,” triggering the children with autism and other conditions that have affected their gross and fine motor skills to pedal their arms along with the actions in the song.
While this scene could be taking place anywhere in the country, one invisible factor sets this classroom apart. Ms. Tarentino doesn’t work for the school, or the district. She’s an employee of Futures Education, a private company that works with dozens of districts around the country on cutting special education costs.
Futures Education may be hired simply to evaluate how a district’s special education students are served, or it may go as far as providing therapists or aides and revamping how those services are delivered based on the company’s evaluation.
But despite many districts’ current financial straits, even having a conversation about changing special education services can raise the hackles of any school administrator, teacher, aide, therapist, or parent.
“It is a very hard discussion,” said Peter Bittel, the chief executive officer of the Springfield, Mass.-based Futures Education. “You have to gain a great deal of acceptance with the district that you’re working in.”
In some districts, the 13-year-old company has been greeted with an angry legion of parents and school employees protesting its arrival, or it has had to sue districts that wouldn’t pay for the analyses it was hired to produce. In other districts, however, including the Everett schools, where Ashley Tarentino works, the company has made few waves and saved the district significant expense.
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Reporter Nirvi Shah talks with Futures Education officials and employees about the company’s work with special education classes in Amesbury, Mass.
“I don’t think anyone would know the difference,” said Thomas Stella, an assistant superintendent of the 6,275-student district about five miles north of Boston, referring to the services the company provides for the district. In two years, Futures has saved Everett about $620,000 in a total special education budget of about $16 million, with most of the reduction due to changes in staffing the company instituted.
Costs on the Rise
Around the country, most districts have found special education costs rising steadily for years, said John Musso, the executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International, in Reston, Va.
“Special ed always seems to be the tail that wags the dog,” he said. “We need to service those students, but the mandates just increase. The requirements increase. So, of course, the costs increase along with inflation.
“I don’t think anybody disagrees with the basic tenet that these kids should be served,” Mr. Musso added, “but every school system has been in this position. They’ve had to subsidize the programs” because the federal requirement to provide a free, appropriate public education for children with disabilities is only partially funded.
He said that he wasn’t familiar with Futures Education, but noted that any company’s philosophy and practices would work only for some districts.
“It’s such an individual thing—who’s going to save and who’s not going to save,” he said.
But Futures believes many, if not most, districts are wasting money in the special education arena, money that, if saved and rerouted, could benefit the entire district, it argues.
The company says it has saved the 5,800-student Holyoke, Mass., district $1.6 million in three years. Savings of about $600,000 were reported by the 3,800-student Anson County, N.C., district. In Wayne County, Mich., district officials said savings have totaled more than $5 million in two years of contracting with Futures.
The problem, according to Mr. Bittel, is that special education isn’t standardized from school to school, much less across districts and states.
Teams that craft individualized education programs, or IEPs, “are making individual decisions about students without any benchmarks,” he said, referring to the plans required under federal law for students with disabilities. “The question then for special ed is, what is best practice? Everybody can’t be practicing best practices.”
Mr. Bittel bases his conclusion on the company’s experiences with more than 100 school districts serving 30,000 individuals with disabilities in two dozen states. Some are small-city districts, such as Everett, but the company also has contracts to work with some students in the 60,000-student District of Columbia schools and 7,000 students in 17 districts in Michigan’s Wayne County.
Futures Education can analyze the way special education services are delivered in a district and provide some of those services, including therapists and paraprofessionals. The company usually offers to interview current district employees who hold those jobs, but the retirement and health benefits they’d receive from Futures are likely to be less generous, Mr. Bittel said.
The company stops short of taking over a district’s entire special education program, because it doesn’t employ teachers. Futures, which is privately held, declined to provide information about its profits.
Futures Education, whose headquarters are housed in what was once a convent, is trying to break the cycle of belief that providing more services for every child is automatically what is best, Mr. Bittel said. Its approach is to establish clear entry and exit criteria for when students are to be provided with a service.
“Speech therapy for life—you actually hear that a lot,” he said, referring to the perception that some students seem to never exit therapy, whether they need it or not. Another example he refers to often is providing therapy to teach children with disabilities how to tie their shoes.
“We’ll put a child in occupational therapy, sometimes for years,” he said. “Is that educationally relevant?” Instead, he said, the child could wear shoes that don’t need to be tied.
He has the same attitude toward working for years to improve the handwriting of a child with disabilities.“Are we hurting the child? We’d argue we aren’t,” he said of putting aside that effort.
But that approach bothers Luann Purcell, the executive director of the national Council of Administrators of Special Education, or CASE, based in Warner Robins, Ga. She was an assistant superintendent overseeing special education for 18 years before leading CASE.
“Just because the law doesn’t absolutely require you to use occupational therapy doesn’t mean sometimes you don’t do it,” Ms. Purcell said. In some cases, providing a service may help a school district avoid a due process hearing or lawsuit—and defending those legal actions could be more costly than providing the therapy, she said.
More importantly, she said, there’s always the possibility children will eventually gain skills when they remain in therapy. She recalled the case of a student with traumatic brain injury who ended up graduating with a regular diploma in her district, Houston County, Ga., because the district kept the student’s services in place for years.
“You can’t take business principles as such and just lay them over education,” Ms. Purcell said.
In April, SPEDWatch, a Pepperell, Mass., group that defines itself as a special education activism group, urged caution in weighing “recommendations made by Futures Education so as to avoid illegally denying children services.”
Futures’ approaches are similar, however, to those of a well-known nonprofit organization, Education Resource Strategies, in Watertown, Mass. ERS, in existence since 2004, works exclusively with large districts on ways to better manage time, people, and money.
In special education, said Stephen Frank, a director of the organization, the group looks at how many students are being identified, how they can be taught in less restrictive settings, and whether special education teachers can work with regular education teachers to reach more students at a time rather than pulling them out of class.
But ERS leaves it to districts to implement the plans it draws up, Mr. Frank said, while Futures takes on some of that work itself.
Some of the Futures strategies may sound extreme, but the company insists they are based on what’s in children’s—as well as school districts’—best interests.
Mr. Bittel, 63, the CEO, began his career in education as a speech therapist. Eventually, he joined forces with Erin Edwards, also a speech therapist, now the company president, and also now Mr. Bittel’s wife.
“We started out very much as a staffing company—physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech,” Ms. Edwards said. “It became clear to us, throwing more staff into a system was not helping.”
That realization started with one of Futures’ first contracts, around 1999. The Holliston, Mass., district considered hiring the company to provide speech therapists. But when Futures looked over the district’s workload and its therapists’ schedules, it turned out the district didn’t need more employees. It needed to redistribute the work and the way therapists worked with children—less one-on-one and more in groups, Ms. Edwards said.
“The conversation has never been about denying services to kids or diluting their impact,” she said. “It’s looking at a delivery system and determining if there is a wiser way.”
While part of the reason for the company’s push for more-inclusive education for students with disabilities is financial, it’s also motivated by what’s widely seen as educationally sound. A nationwide movement has pushed to teach students with disabilities more inclusively.
Another advantage: When the classroom teacher sees a therapist like Ms. Tarentino in action, he or she can mimic her, said Michael Neiman, a Futures vice president. And for the child, he said, the therapy is connected with a classroom lesson or activity, giving it meaning and context.
In addition, by working with a therapist in class, the child isn’t spending time out of class, away from general education classmates, Mr. Neiman said. Futures provides a minimum of five days of training for its employees each year to teach about inclusion and other topics, and school district employees get similar training, though amounts may vary.
The company also presses districts to use the strategy known as response to intervention: identifying students’ learning problems early, then using specific lessons, or interventions, to address those problems. Its use has reduced the number of students in many districts labeled as needing special education, and it is beneficial in other ways, said Carol Hepworth, the director of special education in Massachusetts’ Holyoke school district, which has been working with Futures for several years. “If you don’t have to test these 25 kids for special education, you can be over here doing instruction,” Ms. Hepworth said.
Futures Education signs contracts with districts in which the company pledges to take over services for a fixed amount that is less than whatever that district was paying for the same work.
“If we don’t meet that, we’re at risk for that,” Mr. Bittel said. In other words, there’s no going back to the district to ask for more money. The contracts also give districts the right to end the agreements within 30 to 60 days, with or without cause.
In the Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative in western Massachusetts, Executive Director Anne McKenzie brought in Futures during the 2008-09 school year. The company was hired after costs for providing services to the approximately 150 students with disabilities in the seven-district collaborative had increased yet again.“I am not somebody who is an unequivocating advocate of privatizing public education,” said Ms. McKenzie, who was a special education teacher earlier in her career. “We are primarily responsible for very high-quality educational services and high levels of student achievement and attainment. We’re also stewards of public money.”
Switching to Futures has helped trim $600,000 from the collaborative’s $20 million total annual budget.
The change meant nine therapist jobs were eliminated, and because most of the people in those jobs chose not to interview with Futures, new therapists came in.
Ms. McKenzie said that change remains one of the most difficult for teachers and parents to get used to, although parent complaints about services are uncommon. In the past, therapists hired by the collaborative were likely to have known a student for years.
Futures-hired labor has turned over more frequently, said Denise Murphy, a teacher in the area for 21 years who works with students with intense needs. Some of her students at Ludlow High in Ludlow, Mass., rarely speak, and others aren’t able to use the restroom on their own. She said the use of therapist assistants rather than full-fledged therapists is sometimes noticeable.
“Not everybody has a background in this,” she said, noting the special equipment in her room and the three students sitting silently in front of a television while several staff members watched them from across the room.
When allowed by local special education rules, Futures tries to use certified therapist assistants, such as Ms. Tarentino, rather than full-fledged therapists, which saves money. Mr. Bittel said that therapist assistants always work under the supervision of therapists, who are responsible for writing reports and evaluations. But for day-to-day therapy, except for some complex cases, it doesn’t make sense to use therapists, he agrees.
“A lot of therapy is routine,” he said. “You should use less-trained people to deal with routine tasks.”
With therapists shifting from school to school to work with as many students as possible, there isn’t time to plan lessons together or easily change a schedule to accommodate a school activity, such as a field trip, said Dot Rhodes, a 30-year special education teacher who also works at Ludlow.
For example, when a speech-language-pathology assistant worked with students on ordering a set of directions for planting seeds and teaching related vocabulary, Ms. Rhodes could have added some science principles to the lesson, she said. But she and the therapist didn’t have the opportunity to plan lessons together, as would have been the case in the past.
Mr. Bittel, whose own grown son has disabilities, said he understands that to some, his company will always be viewed skeptically.
“We’re pariahs—outsiders who are going to come in and take jobs,” he said before the start of a May 3 school committee meeting in the Amesbury, Mass., district, which is considering hiring Futures or another firm to take over the work of paraprofessionals who work with students with disabilities. The move would save the 2,400-student district at least $110,000 a year.
“We’re not bad people. And we’ve never been asked to leave a district,” Mr Bittel said. “Special ed is just not working. How do we rethink this? How do we do it differently?”
A version of this article appeared in the May 25, 2011 edition of Education Week as Mass. For-Profit Helps Schools Trim Special Education Costs