Budget & Finance

Special Education Is Getting More Expensive, Forcing Schools to Make Cuts Elsewhere

By Mark Lieberman — April 20, 2023 8 min read
Special education teacher Savannah Tucker works with Bode Jasper at the Early Childhood Education Center in Tupelo, Miss., on May 14, 2019. As the special education population has grown, so has mainstreaming - bringing these students into regular classrooms for at least part of their school days.
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Since students began returning to school after the early-pandemic shutdowns of spring 2020, the Revere school district just north of Boston has been inundated with unexpected special education challenges that dwarf anything administrators have previously seen.

Dyslexia, autism, and other similar diagnoses are on the rise. Many students’ needs have become more complex than district staff can handle on their own. The cost of fuel to transport those students to private providers nearby or elsewhere in the state has soared.

The 7,300-student, majority-Hispanic district, where more than 70 percent of students speak a language other than English at home, spends roughly $15,000 per year on the average student—in line with the national average. But it costs as much as 10 times that to educate some students with specialized needs.

“One child moving into a community can have a significant impact on the budget for that whole year,” said Dianne Kelly, superintendent of the Revere schools. “When you amplify that by 50, 60, 70 kids in that kind of an environment, it really cuts away at the budget” for the district’s other services.

That’s because the federal government requires districts to educate students with disabilities regardless of how much it costs—but foots only a sliver of the bill.

To fill the vacuum, states and districts share the disproportionate cost burden of supporting a complex population of vulnerable students who depend on these resources for their development. Those expenses, which often grow at unpredictable rates, end up competing with districts’ other priorities—including ones that students with disabilities also benefit from having.

Some states provide a significant share of those funds, while others predominantly pass the costs to local taxpayers. Debates are currently raging in states including Kansas, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Washington over how to more effectively ensure that the costs of those services don’t come at the expense of other crucial spending priorities.

The outcome of these debates holds high stakes not just for students with special needs, but for the students who attend schools alongside them, said Susan Book, a parent of a student with disabilities who helped co-found the advocacy group Save Our Schools North Carolina.

She recalls an instance from her child’s elementary school years when the school was short on teachers and instructional assistants. A school resource officer came into the classroom to fill the gaps on discipline, and Book’s child was startled by his unexpected presence.

The situation reminded her that the problems schools experience affect students with disabilities even if they’re not directly related to special education. Close to two-thirds of students who receive special education services nationwide spend more than 80 percent of their school time in general education classes, federal data show.

“The majority of students with disabilities are in your general ed. classrooms,” Book said. “If your general ed. classroom is underfunded, so are they.”

Why states and districts have to spend so much

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act authorizes the federal government to pay for up to 40 percent of the excess cost of special education each year beyond educating an average student. When President Gerald Ford signed the bill into law in 1975, he fretted openly about the possibility that the federal government had overpromised.

In the half-century since that requirement became law, his premonition has come true. Congress has only ever funded even half that amount once—2009, when the federal government sent millions in one-time stimulus funds to districts at the onset of the Great Recession. During the 2020-21 school year, federal investments made up just 12 percent of the excess costs for special education, according to an analysis of federal data by Sarah Abernathy, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding.

Meanwhile, state policies for funding special education vary so widely that it’s difficult to get a comprehensive picture of how much the nation’s schools are spending on special education. What’s clear, though, is that special education costs are growing, and that states are rarely providing enough money to keep pace.

In Pennsylvania, for example, the cost of providing special education services increased 18 times faster than the aid the state offered to cover those costs between 2008 and 2017, according to data compiled by the advocacy group PA Schools Work.

“States like to limit the amount of state funding they’re liable for and shift the burden to localities,” said Eric Syverson, a policy analyst for the Education Commission on the States, which tracks states’ approaches to funding special education.

Some states fully reimburse schools for special education services, but only up to a certain percentage of the district’s overall enrollment, or up to a certain percentage of the state’s overall K-12 spending.

Others, like Alabama, use Census data—often outdated and imprecise, Syverson said—to assume a certain percentage of students will need special education services, and distribute weighted funds accordingly.

Connecticut’s funding model, meanwhile, pays only when a district’s special education expenses exceed the cost to educate an average student by a factor of 4.5.

Political fights raging over how to solve fiscal problems

Some of the fights over special education funding in state legislatures this year have become contentious.

In a letter to state lawmakers last month, several superintendents in Washington state raised the possibility of legal action if the state continues to cover the costs of special education only up to 13.5 percent of a district’s total enrollment, even if the district enrolls substantially more students who receive those services. The state supplements those base funds with grant programs, but districts aren’t entitled to that extra support.

Kansas lawmakers tried to link an increase in special education funding to the establishment of a voucher program that would devote public money to parents’ private education expenses. That bill failed to gain traction, and the governor’s promise to fully fund special education at the state level remains unfulfilled for now.

And in Minnesota, lawmakers and the governor have been sparring over how much more money the state should contribute to districts’ special education costs.

The 20,000-student Osseo district northwest of Minneapolis this school year spent $28 million of its roughly $300 million general fund on special education services the state didn’t cover. The only expense the state fully reimburses is the cost of transportation, said John Morstad, the district’s executive director of finance and operations.

In Minnesota, the $28 million the district has to cover is known as its “cross-subsidy.” Districts in the state collectively are on the hook for $750 million in cross-subsidy funds this year, according to a legislative fiscal note. That’s equivalent to $886 for each of the state’s 846,000 K-12 students.

Morstad’s district is planning to incur a deficit to implement a new $6 million English language arts curriculum. Because of the cross-subsidy, the only other alternative would have been to roll out the curriculum gradually over several years.

“To me, it’s not fair to say, ‘We want you to succeed and excel, but I need you to wait two or three years,’” Morstad said. “I just feel like I’m not doing my job right if I say that.”

Deficit spending now could mean staff cuts in the future.

“I can only cut so much other stuff,” Morstad said. “At some point the lawnmowers have to be replaced.”

Student needs are greater because of pandemic disruption

The special education profession’s challenges have grown in a variety of ways since the pandemic began.

The Osseo district is currently short 26 special education teachers, and 50 support paraprofessionals. The jobs have become more demanding and less appealing.

“A standard case from 10 years ago might take 5 percent of a teacher’s time,” Morstad said. “Now that same case takes 15 percent of their time.”

Nationwide, the number of students who qualify for special education services has swelled from 3.7 million, or 8.3 percent of the overall student population, in 1976—the year after Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act into law—to 7.2 million, or 14.5 percent, in 2020, according to federal data.

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Collage by Gina Tomko/Education Week and Getty

A rise in students experiencing mental health crises has strained hospitals and residential facilities that provide care, said Paige Tobin, an attorney who represents public and private schools in litigation around special education. Public schools or private special education providers end up managing those students’ needs.

Many of those workers have also been slogging through these challenging responsibilities in person since the summer of 2020, before most schools reopened to the broader student body.

To do this, many employees in the predominantly female profession had to step away from taking care of their own children who weren’t attending school in person, said Elizabeth Becker, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Approved Special Education Schools.

As student needs have grown, districts have also had to devote larger sums of money for legal fees for special education disputes that have become more frequent and cumbersome, Tobin said.

All of these challenges strain the system’s resources and necessitate bigger interventions, experts say. Many believe more involvement from the federal government would make a substantial difference.

President Joe Biden promised during his campaign to fully fund IDEA, but his administration’s most recent budget—while proposing to raise funding—still falls well short of that target.

“When you have an issue that’s impacting more than one state, that’s when we need our federal government to intervene,” Becker said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2023 edition of Education Week as Special Education Is Getting More Expensive, Forcing Schools to Make Cuts Elsewhere


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