READFIELD — The second-largest budget line in most school districts is the one for special education. Maine’s schools spent $305,037,637 (yes, million) in the 2012-13 school year for special education services.

Part of that cost includes services for students with autism and other behavioral or emotional disabilities. Districts throughout Maine send young people to high-cost, out-of-district placements at private, special-purpose schools, such as Providence Service Corp. in Brunswick and the Margaret Murphy Center for Children in Lewiston/Auburn.

Autism is a neurological impairment characterized by impaired language development, lack of social reciprocity and social interactive skills, and repetitive or stereotypical behaviors such as hand-flapping.

The incidence of autism has exploded in the past two decades because of better diagnosis as well as actual increases in the number of children born with the disorder. Early intervention using evidence-based methodology is critical for a child’s future functionality.

In Maine, as it is across the country, most public schools do not operate effective programs for students with autism and either send them out of district or, worse yet, establish ineffective in-house programs.

The cost of out-of-district placements is high, with tuition alone at more than $70,000 for a full year. Depending on student need, the expense can far exceed that amount. Schools must also transport students to and from the schools every day, year-round for many, and that cost can equal or exceed the tuition costs. Many districts pay more than $100,000 a year for each student sent to a private school. Many students spend hours each day being driven to and from their placements, often miles from their homes.

I’m familiar with the two private schools previously mentioned (there are others throughout the state), and they are excellent, high-quality programs. Some public schools have recently begun the process of creating programs as well.

An evidence-based teaching method called applied behavior analysis can dramatically improve students’ behavioral and overall language functioning. In an applied behavior analysis program, students have one-on-one instructors who are regularly supervised by board-certified behavioral analysts. Their individualized instruction programs are designed and developed by highly skilled professionals, often in consultation with the behavioral analyst, clinical psychologists, speech-language therapists and occupational therapists as well.

In my career as a special education director and school superintendent, I established public regional programs for students with autism in the Farmington Community School District, Maranacook Schools and, most recently, in Regional School Unit 13 in Rockland.

While I have great respect for the Providence and Margaret Murphy programs, I just couldn’t accept that our students were going far from home to a program that we could successfully duplicate in the public schools.

As part of the private tuition, we were paying for administration and infrastructure all over again. And with student enrollments declining, we had the room and the existing infrastructure to handle the job. I estimated that about one-third of what we were paying in tuition costs was going to administration and infrastructure at private facilities. Why not do it ourselves?

Establishing public regional programs is not for the faint of heart, and it still costs over $40,000 per year per student. But it can save hundreds of thousands of dollars for a district while serving students in their local school system.

The key ingredient for success is in the staffing. The program must have a behavioral analyst on staff, and there must be periodic consultation with school or clinical psychologists. The teachers and assistants must receive intense up-front and ongoing training.

The program must create a data collection and analysis protocol, which is at the heart of an applied behavior analysis instructional approach. With those essential components in place, public schools can offer the same high-quality services to students at home and without the added driving time and extra costs for administration.

Our public schools spend millions of dollars sending students to private, special-purpose schools. Districts can change this by working hard to develop public regional programs for students with autism.

Some students with severe emotional and behavioral needs cannot be served appropriately in the public schools, but most others can and should. The Maine Department of Education and the state’s school superintendents, child development services directors and directors of special education should gear up to make this happen. It’s the right thing and the smart thing to do.

— Special to the Press Herald