LOS ANGELES (AP) — The high cost of educating students with special needs is
disproportionately falling on traditional public schools as other students
increasingly opt for alternatives that aren’t always readily open to those
requiring special education.
The issue is particularly acute in districts where enrollment has declined
due to demographic changes such as low birth rates and population shifts
combined with an influx of charter schools and voucher programs that have
siphoned off students.
School district officials say all schools that receive public funds should
share the cost of special education.
“It raises an ethical responsibility question,” said Eric Gordon, chief
executive officer of Cleveland Metropolitan School District. “We welcome our
students with special needs, but the most expensive programming is on public
In Cleveland, the district has lost 41 percent of its students since 1996
while its proportion of students with special needs rose from 13.4 percent
to 22.9 percent last year. In Milwaukee, enrollment has dropped by nearly 19
percent over the past decade, but the percentage of students with
disabilities has risen from 15.8 percent in 2002 to 19.7 percent in 2012.
Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest system with 665,000 students, has
seen enrollment slide by 8.5 percent since 2005-06, while its special needs
population has increased from 11 percent to 13 percent.
The U.S. Department of Education’s office of civil rights is investigating
charter school practices relating to students with disabilities in five
districts around the country, said Russlyn Ali, assistant secretary of civil
rights. The probes, which look at admissions, curriculum and accommodation
of needs, are the first of their kind, said Ali, who would not release the
names of the districts.
While the number of students with special needs has not increased, the
rising proportion has driven up costs for cash-strapped schools. Special
education, which requires speech pathologists, psychologists and trained
teachers, and sometimes special facilities and equipment, can cost four
times more than general education. Federal funds only cover a fraction of
the extra expense.
Public Schools of Philadelphia, for example, spent $9,100 per regular
education pupil in 2009, $14,560 per pupil with milder disabilities and
$39,130 for more severe disabilities, according to a consultant’s report
that compared special education costs. Other districts cited report similar
numbers: Los Angeles Unified spent $6,900 to school a regular education
student, $15,180 for a pupil with milder disabilities and $25,530 for a
child with significant needs.
With budget shortfalls creating staffing crunches and federal law requiring
putting children with disabilities in regular classrooms when possible to
remove the stigma and encourage diversity, general education teachers now
may find a number of pupils with special needs in their classes.
“There used to be one or two. You’d sit them at the front of the class, but
now there are 10 or 12,” said Barbara Schulman, an Orange County special
education teacher who heads the California Teachers Association’s special
education committee. “Teachers need to know what they’re doing.”
Most charter, parochial and magnet schools serve children with disabilities,
but they are often milder disabilities, leaving the brunt of students with
significant needs in traditional district schools.
Special needs enrollment in Philadelphia district schools and charters is
roughly 14 percent, but about half the district’s pupils with special needs
have severe disabilities compared to about a third for charters.
Charter proponents say schools do not turn away kids with disabilities or
ask if an applicant has disabilities, which is illegal, and note that in six
states — Nevada, Wyoming, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania — charters
serve more pupils with special needs than local districts
As districts increasingly offer other options, kids with disabilities are
not enrolling in the alternatives at the same rate. Some parents may feel
their child is better served with a traditional public school, said Ursula
Wright, interim president and chief executive of the National Alliance of
Public Charter Schools.
“Charter schools give all parents opportunities for choices. Sometimes the
choice is not to select a charter school,” she said.
Some charters, such as Partnership to Uplift Communities, have made serving
special needs their mission. The Los Angeles charter organization has
special needs enrollment ranging from 9 percent to 17 percent at its 13
Many charters have been reluctant to tackle special education because they
lack expertise, but that is starting to change, said Kaye Ragland, who heads
special education for the Partnership.
Districts have started to reach out to charters to collaborate more on
special education. Some, like Los Angeles Unified, are training charter
teachers. Denver Public Schools has gone further.
Two years ago, the district requested that charter operators agree to a
mission of equity in schools and included clauses in charter contracts
stipulating that they must install programs for severe special needs if
Aided by district-provided training and funding, several charter operators
now host centers specializing in autism, emotional disturbance and cognitive
delay, serving 15 percent of the district’s students with significant needs.
More centers are in the works, said John Simmons, executive director of
student services for Denver schools.
“We want to realize this idea of equity between traditional district schools
and non-traditional schools. It’s about looking at schools on a level
playing field,” he said.
Parents like Matthew Asner, whose 9-year-old son with autism attends a
traditional Los Angeles Unified school, hope the issue gets figured it out
soon. He’d like the fourth-grader to go to charter middle and high schools,
but knows it’s a challenge to find one that accommodates autistic students
and has openings.
“I don’t think we’ve got a good handle on this,” said Asner, who is
executive director of Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization. “We don’t
want to see this kind of exclusion.”