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Special education is costly proposition for struggling schools

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POSTED August 21, 2012 12:49 a.m.

Education funding in California is like a Rubik’s Cube.

There’s method to the madness but every district that plays the forced game with the designers of the funding mechanisms in Sacramento have decidedly different outcomes.

It is why Manteca Unified gets $8,323 a year to educate a student, Stockton Unified $8,828, Lincoln Unified $7,586, and Ripon Unified $6,502.

An entire smorgasbord of factors go into determining the amount of money per child a district gets running the gamut from the social-economic composition of the students to programs offered. And in order to get the money that is paid based on average daily attendance, each child had to attend school every day. Unless there is an excused absence that meets state regulations, the ADA a district receives - usually months and sometimes almost a year after the district spent the money educating the student - is reduced proportionally with each missing day.

But that doesn’t mean that the district is spending $8,323 for each student when salaries, book, classroom space, utilities, and support services are taken into account.

It is because all students aren’t created equal.

Special education students consume a bigger portion of the ever shrinking financial pie.

Los Angeles Unified illustrates the dilemma perfectly. A regular student - someone taught in mainstream classroom settings - has $6,900 a year spent on their education. A special education student with mild challenges has $15,180 a year spent on them. And a special education student with severe challenges has $25,530 spent on them. That’s four times what a regular student costs to educate.

The added cost is reflected in significantly lower teaching ratios augmented with aides, specialized instructors, speech pathologists, and psychologists, plus special equipment.

All children are not created equal. It is an unfortunate fact of life. A lot of things impact the hand they’re dealt whether it is DNA, family relationships, social-economic factors, and access to education.

At the same time, all children are not equal in the eyes of the state. That explains why there are categorical funds aimed at countering disadvantages whether they are social-economic or handicapped issues.

EdSource notes there are more than 6 million students in California public schools with about one in 10 students receiving Special Education services.

The Public Policy Institute of California in 2009 issued a report that noted 17 percent of all K-12 education expenditure in the state’s public schools went toward special education. We also spend about 20 percent more per student than other states when it comes to special education.

Starting in 2008, students with learning disabilities cannot receive a diploma unless they pass the California High School Exit Exam. Only 54 percent of disabled students pass the exam compared to 90 percent for non-disabled dispite the use of modified and alternative assessments for specific disabled students.

The question that no one is asking given the budget crisis is whether we can continue to afford to support special education in K-12 at the current level. That may sound like borderline blasphemy just to ask the question, but it needs to be asked especially if Proposition 30 fails in November.

Manteca Unified would take a $10.1 million annual hit.

Something has to give.

There is little doubt spending per pupil will drop. A $10.1 million loss in revenue each year would translate into $439 less spent per student. It’s tragic but the point is rapidly approaching when we will be forced to rethink education spending.

If resources get so tight can we as a society afford to spend four times the amount on disabled learners as we do on others?

The reverse question would be asking ourselves what we would be saying about society as a whole if the most vulnerable students ended up not getting extra help in our schools.

The answer is not a wholesale cutting of special education since state and federal mandates wouldn’t allow that. But it is clear that something has to give before the education experience is diluted so bad that nobody benefits whether they are disabled or not.

This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209-249-3519.

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