A state audit has found there is little evidence that a program costing the state millions of dollars is helping Georgia's most emotionally disturbed students.
State auditors criticize the department for not tracking how the 5,500 students in the program are progressing academically. The audit calls for more accountability for the $64 million program, called the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support.
The program's graduation rate is startlingly low: just 10 percent of the high school students served by the program in 2004-05 had graduated with a regular diploma four years later.
State officials say the program is monitored in several ways and must meet federal and state laws on testing. Local agencies run each branch of the program, setting the budgets and staffing.
Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said the state has a monitoring process of the program that includes performance data, site visits, record reviews and meetings with state directors.
“With being able to track the students and see the progress is we’ll be able to see is the money being spent on these students having an impact – a positive impact – on them academically.”
But the audit found that several of the 24 program sites did not have psychologists or social workers even though they were given state money for the positions. And 10 program directors earned more than $100,000 annually, despite the state providing just half of that.
The audit found that in 2009, the programs received state money for 56 psychologists and 112 social workers, but they staffed only 37 psychologists and 72 social workers.
Test data is spotty for students in the program. Until last year, the students were not tracked individually in test data. That means each student was tagged as a student at a particular school but not as a student getting additional support from the special needs program.
"The Department of Education has decided to make this a separate program, with separate resources, yet they have no idea what the outcomes are as a result of getting smaller student-teacher ratios and therapeutic staff," said Leslie McGuire, director of the performance audits division for the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts. "There wasn't a way to say for each individual program or all 24 programs, how are these students doing."
The program was founded in 1972 to serve students between ages 3-21 with severe emotional and behaviorally problems.