Education Matters: The cost of special education: Part Two

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

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.

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