Special Education

School Districts Struggle With Special Education Costs

By Corey Mitchell — January 22, 2020 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires the federal government to help cover the excess costs of meeting students’ individual education needs, has bedeviled school systems for decades.

Under the law, commonly known as IDEA, the federal government will award $13.6 billion in grants to states to help school districts this fiscal year. But as my colleague Evie Blad reported for a story this month, that funding has “consistently fallen short of the target included in the law, leaving state and local officials on the hook.”

The story explores a long-standing argument of education advocates: that fully funding IDEA, which supports education for millions of students with disabilities, would benefit all students because districts would not have to use funds from their general education budget to meet the law’s mandates. A report issued in August by the Congressional Research Service found that federal grants cover less than 15 percent of the average per-pupil expenditure for special education students; that’s less than half of the 40 percent lawmakers envisioned when the law was enacted.

Evie’s story also poses a critical question that is not easy to answer: Just how much does the spending gap affect states and districts? In recent weeks, several stories have revealed the ways in which districts struggle with special education costs. Here are a few:

In Connecticut, the Waterbury Republican-American reports that the 4,000-student Torrington school system ordered a districtwide budget freeze because of an unexpected increase in special education enrollment.

In Michigan, mlive.com reports that Flint residents are demanding more special education funding. Special education costs in the 3,800-student district have spiked as the city deals with the fallout from its crisis with lead in the drinking water. In August, we wrote about how “at least 1 in 5 students in Flint’s public schools are eligible for special education—and the school system is buckling under the weight of federal requirements and costs for providing programs and services.”

In Wisconsin, The Press Times reports that the Green Bay schools plan to cap open enrollment for special education students because of concerns about extra costs the district could incur. While the 20,000-student school system could be shutting its doors to more outside special education enrollment, administrators there will accept all open enrollment applications for general education students. Wisconsin state law allows districts to make separate decisions on open enrollment for special education and general education students based on a state formula that factors in staffing and capacity.

Related Reading

DeVos Says Federal IDEA Mandates ‘Piled On,’ Don’t Match Funding

Special Education is Broken

In Flint, Schools Overwhelmed by Special Ed. Needs in Aftermath of Lead Crisis

Photo Credit: As a co-teaching team, special education teacher Lauren Eisinger, far right, and 1st grade teacher Brittany Ritz use different strategies from day to day and lesson to lesson in serving the diverse needs of their students.

--Mike Bradley for Education Week

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