New York State’s program of special education services to prekindergarten children with learning, developmental or other disabilities clearly needs stronger oversight. The program has been beset by rising costs, conflicts of interest and outright fraud in private companies providing these services.
Late last month, Thomas DiNapoli, the state comptroller, issued three damning audits of prekindergarten service companies whose owners have since been hit with criminal charges for defrauding the state. A company called Capital District Beginnings improperly diverted $800,000. The owner of a Brooklyn company called Special Education Associates Inc., who has pleaded guilty to defrauding the government, paid his wife $150,000 as his assistant executive director while she was earning $90,000 a year as a full-time professor at the City University of New York.
The preschool special education system serves more than 75,000 children a year across the state. The program this year will cost about $2 billion — up from about $792 million a decade ago, when about 60,000 children were enrolled. Part of the run-up has to do with an increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism, thanks to greater awareness of the disorder, making them candidates for intensive services.
The program’s structure may also be at fault. It is essentially run by private companies that often have two potentially conflicting roles: diagnosing the children and providing the services the diagnosis is thought to require. It would make sense to have neutral parties do the evaluations.