California school districts have been forced over recent years to pick up a greater portion of the price tag for providing special education services to our state's disabled children. Between 2005 and 2011, the cost to California school district to fund special education rose 9%, or approximately 2% a year, adjusted for inflation, according to a new report released yesterday by California's Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) in a new report entitled Overview of Special Education in California. In the 2004-2005 school year, school districts paid for 32% of the costs of educating students with disabilities (SWDs), and in 2010-2011, districts paid 39% of the associated costs of special education services.
The reasons for this increase are that funding from the state and federal government has remained relatively flat and also special education costs have been increasing.
Understanding school district's special education finance obligations requires a bit of background into how special education is funded across the United States. Special education is a child of the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA). First passed by Congress in 1973, this landmark civil rights ensured that all children would be educated, regardless of any physical, mental, or emotional disability.
Under IDEA, it was understood that the additional associated costs would be born by the states and local educational agencies (LEAs), or school districts. So, after spending the money allocated by Congress and any additional monies allocated by the state, here California, school districts must use general fund money to pay for the difference between the costs of the services delivered and the monies sent to them from above.
School districts generally refer to this money as "encroachment." In a special section of the report, the LAO attempts to set the record straight regarding encroachment, which has largely been portrayed as an unintended and unfair requirement that jeopardizes the ability of districts to educate general education children. The LAO states that districts sometimes imply that having to spend any local money on special education services "imposes unfair expenditure requirements on their (school district's) general purpose budgets." The LAO bluntly states
This argument, however, is a mischaracterization of both federal and state laws. Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and state special education categorical funds never were intended to cover the full costs of educating a SWD—instead the bulk of the “regular” education costs are intended to be covered using local revenue limit and categorical funding, just as for nondisabled students.
Despite this though, it is clear that district's are being required to shoulder an increasing share of the costs, which are considerable. As an illustration of the discrepancy, the average cost per year to educate a typical California K-12 student is $9,600 while the average cost of educating a special education student is $22,300.
When passed, Congress set a goal of funding 40% of the costs that educating disabled children would require: it has of course never come close to meeting that goal. In the best of years, Congress has paid for only 19% of the costs. The LAO estimates that if Congress met its targeted funding percentage, California would receive an additional $2 billion more annually.
In addition, California has also reduced the percentage that it is contributing. In 2004-2005, CA funded 51% of special education costs but by 2010-2011, that percentage had been reduced to 43%. Ultimately, school districts are left holding the bag by law for whatever costs remain unfunded between California and federal government.
The report does not offer any policy recommendations; it only seeks to cast light on how special education operates in the state. The report covered other important areas besides how special education is funded in our state.
Other interesting findings...
- While academic performance for SWDs has increased, a majority of these students still fail to meet state and federal achievement expectations;
- SWDs in other states spend a greater amount of time in regular education (a goal of special education);
- On a positive note, more than half of SWDs successfully transition to college after high school, with another 15% finding competitive employment.