Special education costs a lot. Here's why.

By Jess Yates | May 02, 2019

Recent newspaper headlines across the state have repeatedly cited special education as the primary cause for school budget increases. This really isn’t surprising; according to the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, annual special education spending in Maine increased more than 15 percent between 2010 and 2015 to $351 million per year, while regular education spending increased by 10 percent. In Regional School Unit 13, 23 percent of the proposed 2019-2020 budget is allocated to special education, and, like statewide special education costs, this amount has steadily grown over time. It is important to understand, however, that this increase is the result of two unavoidable cost drivers – legal obligations and special education population trends that are both beyond the control of local school communities like RSU 13.

Legal obligations

Special education was created by the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 to ensure public schools provide a “free, appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment” to children with disabilities. Later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, this law defined special education as the provision of specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability. To meet these needs, public schools are required to provide students with disabilities with a variety of special education services, including specially designed instruction or speech language services, and a variety of related services, including social work services, occupational therapy services, physical therapy services, and/or special transportation.

Student programs also must include the accommodations, such as alternative seating, different pencil grips, or adult support, necessary to ensure students can access the general education curriculum. While these services and supports facilitate the essential inclusion of students with disabilities into public educational programs, they are admittedly expensive to provide. However, although the federal government is supposed to cover 40 percent of states’ average expenditure per special education student, as of 2015, it contributes only 15.3 percent of these costs to states. This reality has placed a considerable, and unavoidable, financial burden on state and local governments; in Maine, this has been particularly challenging for local communities because property taxes are the primary source of educational funding.

Special education population trends

Special education costs are also increasing because RSU 13’s population of children with disabilities continues to grow, both in size and in the complexity of student needs. Since 2016-2017, the overall number of special education students has been increasing, on average, by 4.3 percent per year because of increased numbers of transfers, increased numbers of incoming kindergarteners who already receive special education services, and increased numbers of special education referrals throughout the year. The number of children entering RSU 13’s schools who already receive special education services through Child Development Services has been consistently growing; there is a projected 200 percent increase in the number of incoming CDS students for the 2019-2020 school year alone.

Additionally, the number of students who are referred to special education throughout the school year has been expanding. As of March 2019, during this school year alone, 69 students have been referred for special education services. While not all students qualify for services, many of them do. Given these factors, it is not surprising that 384 students in RSU 13, or approximately 23.39 percent of the total student population, currently receive special education services. This is more students than the student population of Oceanside Middle School! If current trends continue, this number is projected to reach approximately 400 students during the next school year.

The needs of students with disabilities are also intensifying, as reflected by the increasing numbers of students placed in RSU 13’s Life Skills Programs and Intensive Support Programs. These self-contained programs provide students with significant cognitive disabilities or emotional disabilities, respectively, with the high levels of support and supervision necessary for them to safely and successfully attend public school. Almost 25 percent of RSU 13’s students receive services associated with these intense settings. Because of the complexity of their needs, students placed in self-contained programs require the highest level of services available in public school. Not only do they need access to a special education classroom for their entire day, but they also often require many other services, such as social work, behavior consultation, occupational therapy and other related services, as well as special transportation and direct adult support. Efforts to maintain safety and ensure these students make educational progress are both necessary and resource intensive, and, as a result, are very costly.

Prevention

Although RSU 13 works to allocate resources both equitably and efficiently, there many “non-negotiables” within the realm of special education. That is, because of the requirements of IDEA and Maine’s Unified Special Education Regulations, public school districts must properly fund special education, or risk the consequences of noncompliance with the law. The solution to this situation, therefore, lies elsewhere; specifically, in the realms of intervention and prevention. As such, RSU 13 is devoting increased attention to its ‘Response to Intervention’ programs and services in the hope that the needs of students in the areas of academics and behavior can be effectively met with less restrictive tools. The old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” certainly applies here; the focus on RTI programs will eventually result in an overall decreased need for special education services, and therefore, a reduction in their associated costs.

Next steps

The combination of continued legal obligations and increasing numbers and complexity of students with disabilities has created a perfect storm. Public school districts and communities must ensure that all students with disabilities receive free, appropriate educational programs. However, they get minimal financial help from the state and federal governments to support their efforts to fulfill this important mission, so local costs continue to increase. In RSU 13, for example, special education costs comprise approximately 23 percent of the proposed 2019-2020 budget, representing a 3.5 percent increase from four years ago.

These expenses are, in a word, unavoidable, because they result from:

Legal obligations imposed on public schools by the state and federal governments

Failure of the federal government to fulfill its funding commitments for special education

Increasing numbers of students with disabilities

Increasing complexity of the needs of students with disabilities

As a result, the intensifying impact of special education costs on the RSU, and on local taxpayers, is of great concern. The challenge for RSU 13, and, frankly, every other public school district across the state, is to both recognize the importance of facilitating educational progress for our most unique learners while at the same time, developing and implementing strategies that will effectively and efficiently address costs.

There is no easy fix, but RSU 13 is working hard to find a solution.

Jess Yates is director of special education for Regional School Unit 13.

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