04 March 2013

The rising costs of special education

The classroom above was built to accommodate the needs of a single student.
Room 112 is walled off from the rest of a Maplewood public school by an ugly row of concrete blocks. Its wooden entrance was replaced with a steel door, and the carpet and plumbing fixtures removed, all so its sole occupant — an 8-year-old boy prone to attacking teachers and classmates — would have nothing to destroy during his daily outbursts. Even his books and toys were kept on a cart that could be wheeled away at a moment’s notice.

Every school day, the boy, who has autism and doesn’t speak, came to the barren cell built only for him. Two adults spent all their time teaching him to communicate.

The price? $153,000 for a year of instruction, nearly 20 times what’s spent on a student without special needs. “The costs are staggering,” said Connie Hayes, superintendent of the public school district that built the classroom.

A decade ago, the boy would have been institutionalized. Today, he’s sent to public school. His education in Room 112 tells a larger story of a growing predicament confronting schools across Minnesota...

By law, state and federal budgets are supposed to cover about 90 percent of the cost of educating students with special needs.

But they are falling short, shifting much of the cost to local school districts. Spending on special education is soaring — it has risen 70 percent in Minnesota over the past decade to $1.8 billion this school year...
More details and a news video at the StarTribune.


  1. There was an interesting discussion on reddit on this topic.


    The economic argument for such high costs going towards developmentally challenged kids boils down to:

    Spending money on teaching challenged students the skills to take care of themselves is less than a lifetime of taking care of those students through government aid.

  2. There is a very large push for counties to take care of children with developmental disorders "in house" (so to speak) so as to avoid spending more money for out of county placement. This cost could be double if the child was sent to a specialized school, institution, or agency; this cost is usually paid for by the county or school system anyway. Hopefully, the push will also be to maintain the higher standards and training of the other facilities, but just minimizing the cost. It is also ideal to keep the child close to home and his or her regular services.

    The room is not pretty... but depending on the child's specific symptoms, colors and textures can be overwhelming, hence the sparsity of the room. Two adults is likely more beneficial, if for nothing other than safety reasons and communication modeling.

  3. First off, that is not "a classroom built to accommodate the needs of a single student." It is a preexisting room stripped to accommodate the needs of a single student. That alone is quite indicative of how we have come to address this issue as a society- ignorance and resentment. It's always the people on the lower/lowest end of the social scale that are portrayed as the ultimate drain on society. The banksters on top who broke innumerable laws on the way to robbing us of BILLIONS are referred to as "job creators." Government and society at large bend over to accommodate them in whatever way(s) possible, giving them our money so that they can redistribute it amongst themselves. Then we laud their "accomplishments."

    Second, this conversation (let alone the problem) would largely not exist if "mental health programs had not been cut back or eliminated." Again, see first point.

    The question is- do we treat these individuals as less than animals, and thus become likewise, or do we kill them outright and live in a sociopathic paradise? Of course, we could reexamine and rearrange our priorities to the point where we do what it takes to treat each other (incl the "least of us") in a humane, ethical and civilized manner- instead of honoring and perpetrating a classification system based solely on the accrual of wealth.

    No, I'm not holding my breath either.

    1. Right On Stan!!! Thank Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman for the world we have today.

    2. Stan says it well.

      What does it say about our world that we calculate the cost to the taxpayer to take care of the sick and disabled, while others who are perfectly healthy are calculating ways of robbing us blind? Must we vilify the disabled and begrudge them their path to a dignified life?

      As to institutionalization: my family has experienced the heavy bureaucracy of getting a free and equal education in an ordinary school, as well as what modern-day institutionalization looks like.

      Result? Modern-day institutionalization in my country (France) is 4 times more expensive per month compared to the regular school system hiring a full-time aide, and frankly leaves much to be desired. Budget cuts mean that there are not enough aides for all the children at the institutional school to go to the toilet and to be fed in a timely manner. There is no timely one-on-one help for things like setting up his computer; teachers at the institution refuse to carry his books to another classroom because "it's not their job". And this is for a child who is intellectually normal and presents no behavioral challenges.

      Compassion. Get some. You will want someone to have some for you one day.

  4. There has to be a middle ground, whereby the needs of that child were met, but at the same time a smaller amount of money was spent accommodating his (or her) needs. That way at least some (if not actually most) of that $153,000 could be spent on other children.

    Though I hesitate to say it, perhaps the old "State" boarding schools could be "reopened" (by which I mean recreate the old ideas in new facilities) to concentrate and take care of such students, allowing the STATE to pay for the education, and reducing the burden on local school boards. I don't really like such an option, but are there any other choices.

  5. My concern is not the cost of the facilities, it is the quality of the education the child is getting. This looks like a reactionary response rather than a proactive plan for the child's behavior. What other services is this child receiving? At the very least, there should be a speech teacher(SLP) and an occupational therapist providing services to this child, in addition to the two other teachers charged with his care. Obviously this is not a model to be followed by other schools. There is something wrong here, and it is not the amount of money being spent by the school.

    1. Lori- Money determines the amount and quality of training and education that Spec Ed providers get, money decides how many of them are hired, money determines the curriculum and supplies, money determines the kind of facilities that Spec Ed students are either warehoused in, or effectively taught in with the proper attention to their specific needs. Money. Wherever it comes from.

    2. panhead, you perpetuate a myth created by the Left that liberals have been high-fiving themselves over for decades.

      In 1967, the California legislature passed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (LPS), which allowed local, private (i.e., non-state) mental facilities to accept more patients—particularly those with more treatable or milder forms of mental illness.

      Governor Reagan signed the bill into law. Mental health patients received treatments, and the funding to state mental facilities could be reduced. Of course, the state facilities cried foul at the cut in funding, even though in theory they were not being under-funded. But with a lower case load, treatments improved; and some facilities reduced headcount.

      Despite the bipartisan plan, unforeseen consequences developed. Without a requirement that all mental health patients go to public facilities, many borderline individuals simply refused private treatment as was their right. The upshot was that many individuals who could have benefited from treatment simply did not get any at all; they wound up as functioning members of the public. And sometimes, problems occurred.

      Later, the Carter administration signed into law the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, which largely promoted the same idea for national facilities. In 1981, when both parties in Congress agreed to the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981, President Reagan signed that into law. One of it many provisions was to eliminate federal funding for community services and thereby transfer funding back to individual funding or state-funded efforts. Had Reagan even been aware of that part of the Act, he would have immediately realized the Act was negating the disastrous effects of the LPS he experienced as Governor of California.

      In other words, the State needs more funding control over mental health facilities, whether local, community, or state. Serious cases could still be funded through Medicaid, creating a virtual federal funding pool of money. This was formalized in the Mental Health Planning Act of 1986.

      In effect, bipartisan policies recommended that the Federal government transfer government funding of community mental health facilities back to the states. State-funded facilities as well as privately-funded facilities were not affected by that policy. Reagan signed the bill into law as part of an overall spending cut package. As he would have known, complete state funding of facilities resulted in terrible mental healthcare, but state governments had an obligation to provide for this. However, in 1986, he also signed into a law another bipartisan solution to have Medicaid assist with funding. The laws closed not a single facility.

      Ergo, to the liberals, REAGAN CLOSED THE MENTAL HEALTH FACILITIES. The fact that states closed some facilities and let staff go at others due to their own budget issues is unimportant because, of course, liberals hated Reagan. And still do.

      So they blame him Reagan.

      So when you hear the argument that Reagan closed the mental health facilities, ask the name of one health facility that Reagan actually closed. And when it closed. And how he closed it. And if you hear that Reagan closed it by extenuation of a funding cut, ask which particular bill he signed into law specified that particular facility be closed.

      Or is it a case that bipartisan governments at the state and federal levels attempted to improve healthcare treatment and that bipartisan governments within the states screwed things up so badly that individual departments of health closed down less effective facilities? You will have lost the typical liberal at the word bipartisan.

  6. St. Louis, MO has the Special School District that encompasses all the various school districts throughout the county. Their costs per pupil are just under 15K per student. Perhaps having one district to handle all special needs may be more cost effective. Children can be educated in their local schools, depending on what their needs are. http://www.ssdmo.org/about_us/history.html

    I realize all children must be educated. I had children on both ends of the spectrum and it seems to me less money and classes are available to high achievers. In the case of my eldest, she was unable to take the second year AP calculus course as the school dropped it and moved the math teacher into basic algebra instruction for more kids. It was a scramble to make other arrangements at the local university to take Calculus II over there, extending her class day past 6 pm.

    It makes me wonder what the goal of education is. What knowledge is valuable? Should even the tiniest movement out of concrete cell towards independence be an achievement as worthy as a solid foundation in the classics or completion of all the science courses a high school has to offer?

    As for my second child, little progress was made in the public school and he deteriorated in situations where his IEP was not followed. We home schooled him at our expense.

  7. Stan & Anonymous are socialists. This is America where we need to have prosperity that is NOT redistributed by a corrupt bloated government. Pres. Obama spent $100Million to go to Africa to give them $$6.9 Billion of our tax dollars we don't have that will need to be borrowed from China. There is a mad rush to legalize 11-20 million immigrants into a country with record unemployment & record # on food stamps.

    Why don't we focus on our own people? Its not the businesses...it's our government thinking they run us when it's the other way around. Our kids deserve better than Obamacare & the class warefare crap being shoveled by ALL the politicians in Washington. Not just the DEMs, NOT just the REPUBS...ALL of them.

  8. This, I know, sounds terribly brutal, but:
    From a societal perspective, an individual who is as mentally challenged as this child surely cannot possibly ever put back into his environment anywhere near as much what was given to him simply to make him able to be self-sufficient (if that is at all possible), much less able to produce.
    From a reproductive perspective, it is not at all advantageous for a couple to pour its resources into a child that will be unsuccessful offspring - that will likely be so mentally unbalanced and so unproductive that it takes from the parents more than they get.
    The point of reproduction is to take part in the competition. If your child is not only a last-placer but a resource-taker - what is the point of raising him in the first place? I'm not talking about students who get F's or kids who can't comprehend mathematics -I'm talking about kids who can't even speak to people or learn how to dress themselves.
    If there is a way to identify serious autism before the child becomes too old (past the age of one or two, say), I don't see a good reason to keep it around. No matter what angle I think about this situation from, every time I see myself as a proponent of terminating those who only live in suffering, and who only cause those around them to suffer.
    The only arguments I can think of to counter this will point out how ridiculously cruel this sounds - that creatures have a "right to live." First of all, I contest that if creatures have a right to live, why do we (myself included) eat meat? Secondly, and more importantly, why do we not expend the same energy that we spend on our handicapped children on children who are perfectly healthy, but in danger of dying from malnutrition? Why are we so focused on trying to save dead-ends when we can put our efforts and money into something that will clearly benefit and flourish from the attention?

    The only answers seem to be entirely emotional, often uttered by mothers and fathers, crying angrily while they clutch their malformed baby to their chests. Exterminating our children - a cruelty? It seems a cruelty to force these parents to raise something that will never, ever do them, anyone around them, or even itself any good.
    I would love to hear thoughts on this, though I doubt highly that I will see anyone willing to read this without puking all over it.


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