Who should pay to teach troubled teens?

Nick Smith related the anecdote — a powerful but sketchy one — at a Senate Education Committee hearing last week.

A troubled student was sent from Anchorage, Alaska, to a Meridian group home, after attempting to choke a teacher. The student required constant and costly supervision from two employees, with state and district taxpayers footing the bill.

Smith, the state Department of Education’s chief deputy superintendent, said in an interview Tuesday that he’s only heard the story secondhand or thirdhand. Meridian district spokesman Eric Exline couldn’t confirm the account either.

And this isn’t the only unknown. Smith isn’t sure how many out-of-state students are living in Idaho group homes and attending Idaho public schools — and Exline can’t quantify Meridian’s costs either.

Nonetheless, the Education Department and the Meridian district are adamant about one point. The cost of educating special needs students can be staggering. Providing medical care, supervision and one-on-one instruction time can cost more than $25,000 per year. And when local districts foot the bill for out-of-state students, that comes at the expense of local students.

At the request of the Meridian and Nampa school districts, the Education Department is pushing Senate Bill 1097. This bill would allow districts to pass on these costs to the group homes. In turn, group homes could seek reimbursement from the state that referred a student to Idaho.

“We’re giving them some leverage,” Smith said.

The bill also gives the group homes some incentive — since, as Smith says, these for-profit entities probably cannot afford to eat the cost of educating children under their supervision.

This is something of a touchy situation, and Smith does not criticize the out-of-state school districts that send troubled students to Idaho. Some states don’t have group homes, he said; Idaho has a thriving network, authorized and regulated by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

And Smith says Idaho districts are willing to work with troubled students — as long as they are reimbursed.

SB 1097 is on the Senate floor for amendment. Health and Welfare wants the bill reworded to make clear that it covers only group homes and not foster homes. The bill could be amended as early as Wednesday.

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