The cost of special education

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

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.



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