Blind World Magazine

Study scrutinizes schools for deaf and blind.

The Columbian, Washington State.
Sunday, February 19, 2006.

OLYMPIA -- A new study commissioned by the Legislature weighs the pros and cons of closing the Washington State School for the Blind and the Washington School for the Deaf in Vancouver.

The study by the nonpartisan Washington State Institute for Public Policy was triggered in part by the need for major capital investments on both campuses.

The study does not make a recommendation to lawmakers, but it notes the high cost of keeping the two residential schools open $8.4 million for the school for the deaf and $5.1 million for the school for the blind this year in an era of increasing costs and flat or declining enrollment at both schools.

In the 2004-05 academic year, the school for the deaf enrolled 96 students and the school for the blind enrolled 70. Enrollment at the school for the blind has been steady for several years, but school for the deaf enrollment has declined from 200 in 1981 to less than 100 today.

At a Thursday hearing before the House Children and Family Services Committee, school for the deaf Superintendent Todd Reeves defended his school as an essential option for hearing-impaired students and a cultural center for deaf children and adults in the Vancouver area. Reeves said any consideration of closing the school would be "ill-founded."

"Schools for the deaf are the cornerstones of their deaf communities," he said. "We still live in a society in which the deaf are not fully employed." Students at the school for the deaf, who have contact with hearing-impaired teachers and other professionals and can communicate directly with their teachers through sign language rather than through an interpreter, see that there is a place for them in the larger society, he said.

Those opportunities are less available in a public school setting, Reeves said.

There are legal reasons to keep the school for the deaf open as well, he said. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students are entitled to a range of placement options. A student has the right to communicate with peers and teachers in his or her own language or communication mode.

"The school for the deaf is the only publicly supported institution where the hearing-impaired can communicate directly with all the school staff," Reeves said. If that option is taken away, he said, local school districts might have to contract with out-of-state schools that have residential programs to serve their deaf students, incurring even greater expense and forcing students to attend schools with educational standards different from those in Washington.

Reeves said he felt blindsided by the institute's report, which had not been expected to raise the issue of closure.

"We expected the report to recommend a continuum of services" to help the school expand its outreach programs and work more closely with local school districts, he said.

He called for an education summit involving all the state's stakeholders in deaf education to discuss the best service delivery options for deaf students and the role of the school for the deaf in serving students statewide.

Dean Stenehjem, superintendent of the school for the blind, did not testify Thursday. But at a Feb. 2 hearing before the House Capital Committee, he said that closing the school "would result in the loss of valuable program options for students, parents and local districts, and would result in a less-educated blind and visually impaired student population in the future."

Annie Pennucci of the Institute for Public Policy, an author of the study, admitted that "just raising the possibility of closure is controversial."

The 2005 Legislature asked the institute to study various options for administering the two campuses, which are independent state agencies. But Pennucci said that after reviewing enrollment trends, operating costs and the need for major capital investments, the institute's board of directors expanded the study to look at closure options as well as governance issues.

Because only about 2 percent of Washington students are blind or deaf, most local school districts have difficulty providing those students with broad educational options, Pennucci said. That is why 46 states operate residential schools for the deaf and 40 states operate schools for the blind.

Those programs are expensive, she noted. It costs $23,000 to $24,000 annually to provide education at each Washington campus. Residential services cost an additional $26,000 at the school for the blind and $42,000 at the school for the deaf.

Reeves said the higher costs of residential programs at the school for the deaf are a result of mandates from the Legislature, which ordered increased security at the campus and increased oversight by its board of trustees in 1999. The reforms followed reports of sexual attacks by some students against other students that resulted in the filing of two claims against the state.

The school is now required to maintain a ratio of one staff member for each 7 students, even on evenings and weekends.

It's not always less costly to serve students in public school settings, Pennucci said. "While on average local programs are less costly, there is a wide range of student learning needs and associated costs; local school students who have severe disabilities can cost more to educate than the annual per-student cost at the Washington (State) School for the Blind and the Washington School for the Deaf."

The school for the blind has historically done more outreach to local school districts and the state as a whole, Pennucci said. The School for the Deaf has traditionally been more isolated, but over the past five years has expanded its outreach services to local districts as well, she said.

Capital costs loom

Both schools date from 1886 and both have immediate maintenance needs. Through the year 2015, capital costs are expected to total $12.9 million at the school for the blind, including $8.1 million to build a new gymnasium, and $15 million at the school for the deaf, where some buildings constructed between 1911 and 1927 are still in use.

In her 2006-07 supplemental budget, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed $1 million for the school for the blind to design a new cafeteria, vocational education and maintenance building, and $8.1 million for the school for the deaf gymnasium, which has serious seismic problems.

The Senate did not recommend funding either project in the budget it passed Friday, including just $200,000 for each campus to pay for routine maintenance and safety needs.

The House will release its budget this week.

The House Children and Family Services Committee took no action on the study, but members did not appear persuaded of the value of the two residential programs or the need to invest millions of dollars in keeping the campuses open.

"I have always felt that mainstreaming students with disabilities is valuable," not only to the disabled student but to nondisabled students who gain from being in a school setting with them, said Rep. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma.

"I have seen huge declining enrollment in these schools," said Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla. "It seems to me it might be better if we let the money follow these students to local school districts."

Options for governance, closure

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy looked at several options for governance of the Washington State School for the Blind and the Washington School for the Deaf and for total or partial closure of the schools, considering both the pros and cons of making changes.


* Continue to operate the schools as independent state agencies. This option would be the least disruptive, but some question whether it provides sufficient oversight.

* Return oversight to the Department of Social and Health Services, which operated the schools until 1985. DSHS has experience running residential institutions. But it is not an education agency, and returning the schools to its supervision could perpetuate the view of the campuses as institutions rather than schools.

* Assign responsibility to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction or to the State Board of Education. Both have expertise in education policy, but neither has experience in operating a residential institution.

* Transfer school oversight to the Vancouver School District or to Educational Service District 112. Both administer schools, but neither has experience running a statewide program.

* Combine the boards and administrations of the two schools. That might save a small amount of money in administrative overhead, but students at the two schools have very different learning needs.

* Re-create the schools as nonprofit agencies with some state support. That would make it possible for them to raise private funds, but it could reduce accountability and oversight.


* Close both schools, returning 166 students to their home districts. The state contribution to their education, a total of $1.5 million, would go with them.

* Close the instructional and residential programs at both schools but continue the outreach programs.

* Close the residential programs but continue to offer instruction and outreach. Students living in the Vancouver area could continue to attend the program as day students.

* Close the schools and create regional centers for instruction.

* Close the schools and provide extra funding for blind and deaf students in their local schools.

End of article.

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