Special Education Kids Aren’t Stealing Your Money

Yesterday, I wrote a blog post about my Facebook friends who felt that their public schools had pushed their kids out of the school. Some of those kids had diagnosed disabilities, others had unique learning styles. Commenters responded and expressed their frustration of the costs of special education.

I thought I would respond in a long blog post, because I think the sentiments in those comments are fairly wide spread. I'm also going to take the unusual step of closing comments on this thread on the grounds that an activity that I do as a hobby should not make me sad.

1. Special Needs Children Deprive Regular Kids of Vital Services

There are finite resources; giving Kid A what it would take to teach him to read might mean that Kids B through Z, or B through ZZZZ, don't get art classes more than once per month….or have class sizes of 30 rather than 20….or yes, don't get to have AP courses.

I really struggle with this issue. I sat on our town's finance committee and know our school department's budget pretty intimately. Because we need voter approval to increase taxes (which never happens), we've had to cut arts, music, foreign languages, etc. But I also know there are at least 3 kids in our district (we do a really good job of providing services for kids with special needs) for whom we spend over 200K each year – for each child. I have a hard time seeing what the right thing to do is. On the one hand, I firmly believe that we need to do a better job of providing for kids with special needs. On the other hand, where is the upper limit? Can we provide say only 100K per student each year? That would give us an extra 300K – enough to hire a music or art teacher for each of our elementary schools or restore languages to our middle schools. It shouldn't be either or, but unfortunately right now, it is, and I don't know what the solution is – I wish there was an easy one.

Educating special needs children is expensive. While it may cost a school district $12,000 to educate an average child, a child with special needs might need $70,000. It is very unusual for a school district to pay $200,000 for a private school placement for a special needs child, but there are some kids who have extreme needs that require that much help. Because I don't know the particulars of that situation, I cannot comment. 

Let's say a special needs child needs a private school placement that costs $100,000, which is still a very high number. A lion's chunk of that money goes towards teachers' salaries and benefits. At my son's school, parents have to send in bags of toilet papers into the school, because his program cannot afford toilet paper. They do not offer services that typical children receive – there's no before or after care, no clubs, no school plays.

Local school budgets do not itemize expenses for special education properly. They make a point of isolating the expense side of the special education budget and fail to itemize on a special line the money that comes from the federal government and Medicaid to supplement those services. School districts are not paying $100,000 entirely on their own. How much do they pay? What's the true bottom line? I'm not sure, because school budgets are a local function and there's no way that a state could find commonalities in thousands of local budgets.

That said, the federal government should be paying more for special education services. They promised to pay for it back in the 1970s and they never did. 

Education is very poorly funded in this country, compared to other services offered by our government. It is also funded at the local level. When people see an itemized list of exactly where their tax money is going, they become very grouchy.

What would happen if you saw an itemized list of government expenditures for sanitation, DMV, policing, street maintenance, defense, health care, and the million of other things that government does? You would question whether or not you really wanted to spend money on an extra cop in town or a new fire truck or that food should be dropped in some country in Africa that you never heard of before. 

There are people who really like that the localized education budgets cause people to turn on each other. They are happy about this fight, because they would be really happy if the public school system ate itself. Wouldn't it be nice, if instead of fighting over who gets the biggest slice of the pie, we insisted that the pie was larger? 

2. Special Education Kids Are Disruptive and Hurt Other Kids

(My sister-in-law was recently injured when she unknowingly, on a school visit, stepped within one developmentally-disabled teenager's extraordinarily large zone of personal space. There were staff on hand who stopped his assault immediately; they knew what to do. She walked away, but with whiplash. The student was uninjured.)

I often hear comments about the behavior of special ed kids, even when the topic is about something else, like budgeting. There must really be a lot of anger about this issue that is bubbling around below the surface. 

Kids with a diagnosed disability cannot be responsible for any outbursts or even physical violence. If they are wired in such a way that they cannot control themselves, then they should not be blamed for their behavior.

If a child is that disruptive, then he/she should not be mainstreamed. However, school districts like those kids in district, because the money that is associated with them, stays in the school. It is also cheaper to educate a kid in the school, then pay for an out-of-district placement. It's really the school that is at fault in this situation. 

While all special education kids are different in some ways from typical kids, they aren't all disruptive. Some sit very quietly at the back of the room and don't make a peep all day.

Exposure to people who are different is an excellent learning opportunity for regular kids. Kids need to learn that not everybody is shiny and beautiful. Exposure to special ed kids teaches typical children important values, including tolerance, patience, and generosity. It also lets them realize that their own shortcomings are minor. 

3. The Services That Special Ed Kids Receive Don't Benefit My Child

the yearly salary of aides buys their work for one year, and frequently for one student.

Classroom aides are a very cheap expense. They are two kinds of classroom aides. The first kind are local moms who need a part time job. They receive no benefits. The cost for the district is something like $12,000. Those aides receive no training and are usually brought in when the child's needs are relatively minor. The other kind of classroom aide is trained and may have a full time salary and benefits of something like $24,000. This kind of aide is relatively rare and is brought in only when a child's needs are very high. This option is still much cheaper than an out-of-district placement. 

Classroom aides typically become a service to the entire class. They help other children in the class and assist the teacher in simple tasks like returning tests or taking attendance. 

Other expenditures for special ed kids are used by the general population. A school might hire a full time speech therapist to work with the special education population, but that therapist will also work with regular kids who have problems with a lisp or articulation problems. It is very hard, if not impossible, to isolate the services that are used exclusively by the special ed population. 

4. Could Special Education Kids Use Less Money?

 So the average kid costs $10K, but a special needs kid is costing $70K? Well, what if there was only $35K available? Could the kid get an appropriate education for his issues, but not have mainstreaming available for the subjects where that would be appropriate? Could he be education at a magnet school that is set up for her type of issue, but requires an hour bus ride instead of the five minute walk to the local school? Would you take a $35K voucher so that you are two other families can pay a private tutor $105K for a 3-person classroom directly addressing your needs?

How would you react if I told you that your kid should spend an hour on a bus? Well, my son does spend an hour on a bus each way. It's not a great experience, BTW. How would you feel, if I told you that your kid should spend his entire day with only two other kids? Kids are kids, and they should all be treated equally. 

Why is there an assumption that special ed kids are living a life of luxury? It's completely inaccurate. Why are we so willing to slash their expenditures by half? Are you aware of the problems that would cause? 

5. Special Ed Kids Have Legal Protection, But Typical Kids Don't

My concern is that legally, one population's needs are protected to the extent that yes, 3 students can consume financial resources that would have given a middle school instruction in a second language. No one else's needs are untouchable. 

If you are diagnosed with a disability, school districts are legally required to provide "appropriate, individual instruction." "Appropriate" is a very vague word. School districts interpret this word in widely different ways. They can argue, and they have argued, that appropriate might mean that they sit in a room with a teacher who abuses them all day. There are no guarantees that a special ed kid will receive a certain number of hours of speech therapy or have a teacher with a certain type of training. That's why so many special ed parents have to move to wealthier districts. 

All kids have some legal protections. Every state constitution includes a clause that says something about providing education services, though the wording varies from state to state. Some state constitutions say that the state is obligated to provide an "equal and adequate education." Other states use other words. 

There have been many, many legal battles on the behalf of typical kids to provide more state money for education. They have had varied success, but not because there are no legal protections for typical kids. They have been unsuccessful, because even when the courts rule on their behalf, state legislature refuse to cough up the money. 

The problem isn't legal protections. The problem is that nobody wants to pay for education. 

6. If Special Ed Kids Keep Up Eating Up All The Money, Then Middle Class Parents Are Going to Send Their Kids to Private School

In the long term on that road, you no longer have the middle class in the public schools. They'll send their children to schools "where they can get music too." Middle-class parents will not sacrifice their children's futures.

Kids should have music classes in public schools. Again, the lack of music services has nothing to do with the fact that special ed kids are eating up all the money. 

Based on my unofficial survey of my Facebook friends, middle parents parents are leaving the schools, because they aren't caring for the unusual kids, too. If parents of exceptional kids – both of the high functioning type and the low functioning type – are opting out, then I'm not sure why we should have pubic schools at all. 

7. Us v. Them

Communities are composed of all sorts of people. Some people are like us – healthy, educated, strong. Others aren't. As a member of a community, we should feel obligated to care for and include everyone. If we start demonizing old people, the sick and the disabled, because they are considered a burden on the healthy and strong, then I'm out of here.