The cost of special education


By Marsha Sutton

Talking about the cost to public school districts of providing special education services is tricky. No one argues that the need to serve all kids, regardless of their disabilities, is a moral imperative.

But the effect of all the special education legislation on already slammed school budgets is the elephant in the room that has to be acknowledged to fully grasp the perilous condition of school district finances.

Aides and other professional support in the classroom can cost districts millions of dollars – outside services and facilities, many millions more. On top of that, expensive transportation to and from schools for special education students is legally required. It can all add up to 20 percent of a school district’s budget.

Some federal and state transportation money is available but has never fully covered costs. And now, as California’s funding for education continues to evaporate, the amount provided to transport special education students is diminishing even further.

In the Solana Beach School District, the school board just approved expending $354,000 to Care-A-Van, a Carlsbad-based company, to transport about 30 special education students in 2012-2013. That’s almost $12,000 per student, more than it costs to educate a student for an entire year.

“Over the past several years we have reduced special education transportation costs for the district, but continue to look for more cost-effective services,” said SBSD superintendent Nancy Lynch, in an email.

In the Del Mar Union School District, the board approved a contract with Care-A-Van for the coming school year for $685,000 to transport 49 special education students, which comes to nearly $14,000 per student. [The difference in travel distance accounts for some of the variation in price.]

In the San Dieguito Union High School District, the cost in 2010-2011 for transportation for the 175 special education students who qualify is $2.6 million, which averages to more than $15,000 per student. That figure was higher for 2011-2012, and will increase further this year, according to SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of educational services Rick Schmitt.

Staggering numbers

Then there’s the cost for aides and special services.

Del Mar’s board, at its March 28, 2012 meeting, approved $69,531 for two students who each require a one-on-one instructional assistant for six hours a day. Each aide’s annual salary is about $35,000.

This is peanuts compared to the $270,000 San Dieguito paid last year for two students to attend the Family Life Center, a special education residential placement facility classified as a nonprofit 501(c)3, in Petaluma, Calif.

“The costs for these types of placements, required by law, include room, board, education and mental health services,” said Schmitt. These students, he said in an email, require care 24 hours a day, 12 months a year, and school districts must pay.

Kids in residential facilities, in general, can be violent, need 24-hour care for feeding and toileting, have no communication skills or have other severe physical and emotional needs.

San Dieguito began last year with 12 students in residential programs across the country, costing the district just shy of $1 million. That’s not including $750,000 in transportation costs.

As of June 2012, Schmitt said the district had 20 students in residential facilities, and will start the year this fall with 18. At about $83,000 per student, the cost to the district this year will be about $1.5 million, not including transportation. The two at Petaluma, at $135,000 each, are unusually expensive.

For special education students attending SDUHSD schools, the district has 92 instructional aides, which Schmitt said can each cost $40,000. That’s nearly $3.7 million.

In 2010-2011, San Dieguito’s cost for all special education services was over $18 million, and for 2011-2012, unofficial numbers are $19 million. The district’s total budget is about $102 million.

In 2010-2011, federal and state funds paid 63 percent of the costs, leaving the district on the hook for 37 percent, or about $6.33 million. But in 2011-2012, Schmitt said federal and state funding will only cover 53 percent, forcing SDUHSD to pay 47 percent – about $8.46 million.

That $2.13 million difference is a 33-percent increase in one year, a year that happens to be one of the worst for education funding in recent memory. The $8.46 million is a direct encroachment on the general fund.

No one wants to set up a conflict between special education students and regular students. It’s not either/or, because special education services are mandated by law and must be provided.

And should be, all would contend. Not a single individual in education has ever suggested that special education services should be denied. No one would say – or even believe – such a thing.

But well-meaning special education legislation has resulted in a series of unfunded mandates that cash-strapped school districts already over-burdened with dwindling funding struggle to pay. And those are just facts.

Health services

The San Dieguito Union High School District, serving about 12,300 students in grades 7-12, has about 10 percent of its student population qualifying for a range of special education services. Ten percent is typical for school districts locally and nationally.

There are four categories of special education students at San Dieguito, according to Schmitt: those attending SDUHSD schools who receive extra support at school, those attending SDUHSD schools but require additional services from outside agencies after school hours, those students SDUHSD transports to and from non-public facilities every day who do not attend SDUHSD schools, and those who live in residential facilities 24/7.

In 2010-2011, SDUHSD had 1,225 special education students at its schools. Of those, 1,170 were in a category called mild to moderate. The other 55 were classified as moderate to severe.

The mild to moderate students attend regular classes at district schools but receive some level of support. Some are provided with transportation.

The moderate to severe students, who also attend SDUHSD schools, are often wheelchair-bound and could be blind or have debilitating conditions such as spina bifida. They need more care, often receive psychological services or an array of other mental and physical health support, and usually require one-on-one aides.

The cost to the district in 2010-2011 to educate and provide services for the 55 moderate to severe children was $87,903 per student. Almost all these students are given transportation.

Another group of students, 42 of them in 2010-2011, attend non-public schools throughout San Diego County. “We put them on a bus and bring them home at the end of each school day,” Schmitt said. The cost to provide educational services for these students was nearly $1.5 million, without transportation.

The fourth group is those students placed in residential facilities.

The law requires that, regardless of a student’s condition and the cost, districts must provide a program. “If you can’t provide it within your own building, you have to find a placement for that student outside your building,” Schmitt said.

In attempting to adhere to the philosophy of providing the least restrictive environment, “we exhaust all our resources within the district before considering non-public schools and programs,” he said.

For students educated in the district’s schools, many need mental and physical health services the district is not equipped to provide. Because most of the mild to moderate students, and some of the moderate to severe, are diploma-bound, they require a full day of academics to graduate. So health services provided by the district using non-public agencies are usually offered outside the school day through outpatient programs.

This coming year, though, San Dieguito has contracted with Rady Children’s Hospital for three full-time therapists to work at each of the district’s nine schools.

“They can meet students conveniently during and after school,” Schmitt said. “[It’s] simpler and cheaper, plus our students are able to stay on campus.”

Schmitt said the district is required to provide services for special education students through their 22nd birthdays.

“We’re not built for those kinds of programs [on campus] so we have what’s called an Adult Transition Program,” Schmitt said.

The ATP serves more severely disabled students and helps them develop skills and the capabilities they need to function in society.

“It’s called functionality,” Schmitt said. “This Adult Transition Program is best in a community setting rather than on campus. It helps kids get more familiar with being independent.”

The cost of all these programs adds up to big bucks for school districts like San Dieguito, and expenses for special education show no sign of lessening.

[For a discussion on a unique plan the San Dieguito Union High School District has to cut costs and improve services for special education students, read Part Two next week.]

Marsha Sutton can be reached at