A new report released Thursday from California's Legislative Analyst's Office provides an overview of special education in California, outlining the number of students receiving services, their academic performance, as well as the costs and funding available for such services.
Under federal law, schools must provide individualized instruction and support services at no extra cost to parents in order to meet the needs of a child with a disability, in addition to the services a non-disabled student would receive.
Overall, the report found that 686,000 students with disabilities receive special education services in the state of California, which comprises approximately 10 percent of all students enrolled in public schools. These disabilities include learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, speech and language impairments, autism and chronic health problems. While the diagnostic rate of autism has been on the rise nationally, the report notes that it remains a rare diagnosis, affecting less than 1 percent of students.
The most common type of service provided is specialized academic instruction, including supplementary materials which adapt the content of the curriculum, as well as supplementary services such as speech therapy and adaptive physical education, which help the student access the content provided in a typical classroom.
The most alarming aspect of the report was the fact that the cost of educating a student with a disability, at $22,300, is more than double that of educating a mainstream student, at $9,600. However, some students with disabilities require less intensive, and thereby less costly services, whereas other students may require more intensive, and more costly services, such as a behavioral aide in the classroom.
Schools receive billions of dollars in order to implement basic educational programs, which includes teachers, materials and enrichment activities, for all students, including students with disabilities. Schools also receive categorical funds which cover "excess costs," such as supplementary special education services, but overall federal and student funding for special education is seldom sufficient to cover all the costs recommended in an Individualized Education Programs (IEP). They therefore spend from their general funds to compensate.
According to the report, in the 2010-2011 school year, special education costs added up to $8.6 billion. State funds covered the largest portion of the cost, while general and federal funds made up the remainder, albeit at a smaller percentage. A combination of increasing special education costs and low state and federal funding for special education has led to local budgets covering more of the cost.
The report also noted that California relies on census-based funding which allocates special education funds based on the total number of students, not the actual number of students with disabilities, and assumes that there is an even distribution of students with disabilities across the state.
Finally, the report indicated that the overall number of students with disabilities has dropped, but that the number of students with autism and other disabilities that require more intensive services has increased. Both of these statistics are credited to increased public awareness, as well as earlier diagnosis and intervention. That is, some disabilities are being diagnosed early, with intervention implemented sooner, such as with dyslexia, which may prevent a diagnosis with a learning disability upon entering school. However, disabilities like autism are also leading to earlier diagnosis and intervention, leading to more students with the diagnosis being enrolled in public school.
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