The cost of special education: Part II


By Marsha Sutton

The cost of providing special education services can be up to 20 percent of a school district’s entire budget, as discussed in last week’s column. In the San Dieguito Union High School District, special education costs can be:

•up to $15,000 per student for transportation

•from $83,000 to $135,000 per child for placement in residential programs

•$88,000 per child to provide outpatient mental and physical health services

•$35,000 per child for tuition to private, specialized San Diego County day schools

•about $40,000 per aide for instructional assistants, often one-on-one

•about $65,000 in average salaries for specially trained classroom teachers

Special education students deserve to have services to meet their unique needs, just as other students receive programming to suit their interests, and no one denies this right. Yet the high cost of providing services that are legally required yet unfunded by federal and state authorities leaves already squeezed school districts struggling to pay.

Last school year, special education cost San Dieguito about $19 million, a number that’s expected to rise again this year if the pattern holds true.

To reduce costs and improve services for special education students, SDUHSD has developed a unique plan to open “a school within a school” in the district next fall.

This school would accommodate students who are currently being transported at school district expense to and from home every day to attend non-public schools throughout San Diego County.

The cost to provide educational services for these students, 42 of them in 2010-2011, was nearly $1.5 million, without transportation. Add another $630,000, at $15,000 per student, when transportation is factored in.

Although there are expenses associated with implementing the new program, bringing these kids back to a district school would save a good chunk of the $2.13 million the district now spends on tuition and transportation for this group of students.

“It’s pretty clear we’ve got a lot of kids who need lots of support that costs lots of money, and our aim is to find a way to do it closer to home, more efficiently and with our own professionals,” said Rick Schmitt, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of educational services.

The conventional wisdom, he said, is that school districts are not equipped to handle severely disabled, emotionally disturbed students. “We believe we are and are going to try to bring back some students to programs where we feel we can run them equal or better than the private programs for much less cost,” he said.

An in-house class saves money in two ways: it eliminates tuition to expensive private schools and lowers transportation costs.

The district would still need to transport many of these kids to and from school, but the distance would be far less, reducing the cost. And the money the district would save on special day school tuition well exceeds what it would cost the district to provide special education services, including special ed. teachers and professional health care, at one of its own schools.

As an added bonus, it allows children to attend school closer to home and integrate into mainstream campus life, even if for only a limited time daily.

Tentatively called Seaside Prep, the class would be located at Torrey Pines High School and is proposed to open next fall, in 2013, with about 15 students. The second year, the district hopes to accommodate 30, and the third year up to 40.

Because Torrey Pines has room, the current plan is to renovate and utilize existing unused classrooms on the southeast corner of the campus near the football stadium.

“The kids would be on campus but it would be like a school within a school,” Schmitt said. “They’d have access to the facility but not in a traditional mainstream way. It would be independent but on the campus.”

Schmitt said these kids, many of whom are autistic, are diploma-bound, so the special education staff would support the regular education staff. In addition, the district would provide, as needed, a staff psychologist, a mental health therapist, a rehabilitation assistant, a nurse and other health care professionals.

Many of these professionals are already working for the district, moving from school to school. When the special education class opens in 2013, Schmitt said some people would be placed at Torrey Pines.

Even though health care specialists would need to be hired, Schmitt said it would still cost less than sending the students to an off-site school.

“We believe it would be less expensive and a win just in terms of bringing kids back to our own community,” he said.

Most parents, he said, want their kids to stay in the neighborhood, be closer to home and attend their local schools if possible, so there has been little pushback to the idea.

“They’d rather have their kid at a comprehensive school even though they aren’t in the mainstreamed program,” he said.

Although all cases would be reviewed individually, “we have students who we believe would be a really good fit to bring back,” Schmitt said.

No judgments

The San Dieguito Union High School District serves about 12,300 students in grades 7-12, with about 10 percent of its student population qualifying for a range of special education services.

Schmitt said there are 13 official conditions for special education, and within those are different levels of disabilities.

These children may need any number of different specialists that districts are required to provide, including physical therapy, occupational therapy, psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians and other support services.

“We’re obligated to take care of their needs,” said Schmitt, pointing out that the district provides different programs for all kinds of kids – Advanced Placement, honors, remedial, intervention, co-curricular, extra-curricular and more. “Special ed. kids are no different.”

Two terms in the law are applicable for children needing special education: Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

As former Solana Beach School District superintendent Leslie Fausset explained, “Special education kids have a right to be included in mainstream classes as much as possible and have an absolute right to free public education.”

For all special education kids, “the goal is to move them out of the program, or move them from a more restrictive to a less restrictive environment,” Schmitt said. “The intent is to provide training, skills and support so they can be more independent. We have a lot of kids who exit special ed.”

The district, Schmitt emphasized, is not trying to avoid providing necessary services for kids who need it, but rather to find ways to do it more efficiently – better, for less money.

“For really good reasons, educating these kids costs more money. It’s just does,” he said. “But our belief is it shouldn’t cost as much as it does, and we’ve got some ideas on how to address that.”

Although he said the class represents a way “to work more efficiently to provide better and more services for kids at a lower cost,” the expense of providing special education services will still encroach on the district’s general fund.

The first year of the new class the district expects to pay about $500,000 for classroom and facility renovation, furniture, equipment and other materials and supplies.

“We were going to try and break even in the first year, but more than likely it would cost $100,000 to $150,000 over and above the Year One savings,” Schmitt estimated.

The savings, he said, would come in later years – $400,000 in Year Two, up to $600,000 in Year Three, and more in future years. “Increased savings would come from an increase in student enrollment,” he said.

It’s important to care for these kids appropriately while understanding the dilemma for school districts as they struggle to find ways to reduce costs without impacting essential programs.

Knowledge alone, though, is nothing without compassion and a caring heart.

When Schmitt was developing his ideas for the new class at Torrey Pines, he told his team not to make judgments about costs versus needs. As he was laying out the numbers, his advice was, “Don’t judge. Here’s what we’ve got.”

Good advice. Understanding how much special education costs and why it costs so much can lead to innovative thinking, greater efficiency and improved services.

No judgments. Special education children deserve the best services we can offer to support their physical, emotional and academic development. More power to those school districts creating ways to do just that for lower costs.

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at