Education Funding

How Much Does Special Education Cost in Michigan? No One Really Knows

By Christina A. Samuels — September 20, 2016 1 min read
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Michigan Radio recently reported that the state spent nearly $400,000 on consultant fees to find out how much an adequate education costs in the state.

The consultants came back with a figure of about $8,700 for general education students, plus more for at-risk students and English-language learners. But for students in special education, well ...

From the story:

But there was one glaring omission in the report: the cost of special education. According to the report, "there was difficulty ensuring that the study team could account for all district expenditures for special education students." In other words, [the consulting firm] couldn't figure out how much money is adequate for students with special needs because [the firm] couldn't figure out how much districts actually spend on students with special needs.

Michigan is hardly alone. The radio story noted—as I did in a recent article on special education enrollment and costs—that it’s been 16 years since anyone took a big-picture look at special education funding. We know how much the federal government provides for special education ($12.8 billion, when you include funding to states for school-aged children—the biggest chunk—preschool special education spending, parent information centers, teacher professional development, and other activities.) And we know how much states budget for special education.

The question is, how much are districts spending? The story explains why that’s a hard number to figure out. Most of special education spending is for teachers and other staff members.

Michael Griffith says even those "human expenses" are hard to account for. Griffith is a school finance expert with the non-profit Education Commission of the States. "Let's say you have a teacher, he or she is in a classroom and there are three special ed kids there. How do you count that teacher's salary? Do you count it just as three kids in a classroom of, say, 25? Or do you talk about the extra time that that teacher spends on those special ed kids? Do you talk about the time that he or she might spend after school or after class with those kids as a cost?"

So districts could derive different numbers, based on different calculations of costs.

The best figure for special education spending, based on federally-funded research from the 1999-2000 school year, is that special education students cost about twice as much to educate as general education students. But that figure predates the rise of response to intervention, No Child Left Behind Act, school district efforts toward increased inclusion, a sharp increase in the number of children identified with autism, the Great Recession, and any number of additional issues that could play a role in special education spending.

Bottom line: For an issue that is so important, there’s a lot of basic information we don’t have.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.