Special education costs weigh down San Diego-area districts

Special education costs weigh down San Diego-area districts

Federal and state funding has not kept up with the growth of mandated special education programs.

Special education programs are driving some San Diego-area districts to spend beyond their means.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that the number of students needing special education services and the costs of those services have risen more quickly than available funding.

Though the services are guaranteed by law, neither the federal government nor the state of California provide enough to pay for them. That squeezes already tight school budgets, so administrators have to make do with fewer dollars for other student programs.

“It’s got to come out of somewhere else,” says Paul Warren, an education research associate with the Public Policy Institute of California. “What they’re saying is, ‘We don’t have enough money to pay for everything.’”

Some parents and advocates complain that children with special needs are being denied services because of cost.

Jane Whitney, a special education advocate who has worked with parents in San Diego County for 18 years, says some schools have replaced weekly, one-on-one speech therapy sessions with shorter intervals of speech therapy for small groups of students.

And some schools have used aides instead of speech-language pathologists to run those sessions. Aides are cheaper. Speech and language pathologists in California made an average of $92,280 in 2017, while teacher aides made $34,290.

The 42 districts in San Diego County spent a combined $1 billion or more on special education in the last school year, out of a combined $5-billion-plus in overall school spending. That’s up 32 percent from the more than $792 million spent on special education five years ago, according to district data.

Meanwhile the number of students with disabilities in San Diego county grew by 19 percent since 2012, while overall school enrollment grew only 2 percent.

San Diego Unified, the state’s second largest school district, spends $214 million on special education out of its unrestricted general fund to help pay for services for 13,500 students with disabilities. By 2021, it is expected to spend $244 million.

The federal government has never given as much money for special education as it initially promised. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Congress pledged to pay 40 percent of special education costs. Then it changed the law to say it would contribute “up to” 40 percent.

In reality, since 2010, it has contributed about 16 percent, according to the National Council on Disabilities.

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