The high cost of educating students with special needs is disproportionately falling on traditional public schools as other students increasingly opt for alternatives that aren't always readily open to those requiring special education.
The issue is particularly acute in districts where enrollment has declined due to demographic changes such as low birth rates and population shifts combined with an influx of charter schools and voucher programs that have siphoned off students.
While the number of students with special needs has not increased, the rising proportion has driven up costs for cash-strapped schools. Special education, which requires speech pathologists, psychologists and trained teachers, and sometimes special facilities and equipment, can cost four times more than general education. Federal funds only cover a fraction of the extra expense.Charters take students with disabilities, but the students with more intense needs tend to go to the traditional public schools:
Special needs enrollment in Philadelphia district schools and charters is roughly 14 percent, but about half the district's pupils with special needs have severe disabilities compared to about a third for charters.
Charter proponents say schools do not turn away kids with disabilities or ask if an applicant has disabilities, which is illegal, and note that in six states — Nevada, Wyoming, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania — charters serve more pupils with special needs than local districts
Parents like Matthew Asner, whose 9-year-old son with autism attends a traditional Los Angeles Unified school, hope the issue gets figured it out soon. He'd like the fourth-grader to go to charter middle and high schools, but knows it's a challenge to find one that accommodates autistic students and has openings.
"I don't think we've got a good handle on this," said Asner, who is executive director of Autism Speaks , an advocacy organization. "We don't want to see this kind of exclusion." [ed. note: He is the executive director of Autism Speaks for Southern California. Liz Feld is the CEO of the national organization.]People in the autism community may wonder about the claim that the absolute number of special-needs students has not risen. But consider data from The Digest of Education Statistics.
Between the 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 school years, the number of children getting services for autism soared from 65,000 to 378,000. But the numbers dropped in several other categories: for instance, intellectual disabilities went from 600,000 to 463,000. While not conclusive, these numbers are consistent with the idea that diagnostic substitution accounts for at least part of the rise in autism numbers. In any case, the total number of students getting IDEA services peaked several years ago.