By The Sentinel Colorado Editorial Board (via AP Storyshare)
Every child in Colorado not only deserves a school and classroom offering an opportunity for educational success, they have a right to one.
Despite that, thousands of the most vulnerable students in the state don’t get that opportunity, or their chance for learning is slipping away.
Colorado officials estimate there are as many as 5,000 children every year with behavioral, psychiatric or special education issues so severe that they cannot tolerate normal schools and classrooms. Likewise, standard schools cannot accommodate or even handle many of these students.
The problem in Colorado is one of numbers. Where less than 20 years ago there were about 80 schools or special programs equipped to handle children with autism or other mental health and behavioral issues, there are now just 30.
“A single school serves all of western Colorado,” Chalkbeat Colorado reporter Melanie Asmar wrote in part of an investigative series last week appearing in The Sentinel.
The four-part investigation, “Last Resort,” is a Colorado News Collaborative-led series by Chalkbeat Colorado, The Colorado Sun and KFF Health News into the collapsing system of schools that serve some of Colorado’s most troubled students.
The problem for affected children and their families is clear. Unable to find a school to accommodate the challenges they endure just to get into schools and to keep up, students face having to stay home. The inability to partake in specialized academics is critical. But just as critical is the specialized socialization, therapy and coaching these children need to thrive in a world that will later offer few if any accommodations.
Some of these schools are more than just classrooms. They’re intensive outpatient-like hospital facilities that work hard to help these students live with and even live beyond their challenges.
The problems Colorado faces in keeping these schools open and effective aren’t surprising: money and staff.
The per-pupil costs of many of these specialized schools and programs is exorbitant compared to the approximately $8,000 delivered to most other schools for every student they enroll.
The schools and programs demand small classrooms, specialized staff and additional treatment and therapy programs.
The savings, however, is provably a huge net gain compared to the cost of caring for a person for much, if not all, of their lives because their autism or other affliction is so disabling.
An even greater loss? A better, more normal life that’s the result of effective education and treatment.
While the state has made strides in trying to right the problem by cobbling together programs or offering at-home assistance, the long-term prognosis is bleak, especially if state funding were to backslide.
There is no single, easy answer. Colorado lawmakers should create a commission to ensure schools and programs are available within manageable distances from students’ homes, and that the programs themselves are standardized to ensure an equitable education no matter where in Colorado a child lives.
Ultimately, the trade-off will be reducing the pool of funds for all students in Colorado in order to spend more money on these most vulnerable students. Whether the state is able to persuade federal lawmakers to see this as a national problem, and address it with federal funding, can’t deter state lawmakers from doing what’s right.
What’s right is offering all students educational parity, despite heightened costs.