“I’m impressed,” said Liz Keenan, the district’s special education director, who dropped in to check on the class’ progress. “What you are doing is phenomenal.”
The class, Keenan later explained, is full of “high-functioning” students who probably would not qualify for special education in other states. She estimates that half of the 485 children identified with autism in St. Paul would fail to meet tighter definitions used elsewhere.
Other states define autism as a disorder that “significantly” affects a student’s behavior, but Minnesota considers it a condition that can range from “mild to severe.”
Those guidelines have given Minnesota the nation’s highest autism rate in schools. A Star Tribune analysis of enrollment data shows that one of every 62 students in Minnesota public schools has been labeled autistic — twice the national average. Since 2001, more than 12,000 additional children have been identified with autism in Minnesota, a fivefold increase.
While the number of students with autism is growing nationally, “there is nothing we know about autism that would explain such a high rate,” said Michael Gerber, an education professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara who has published more than 100 research papers on special education. He called Minnesota’s rate “outlandish.”From a subsequent editorial in the paper:
As a Star Tribune news story documented this week, some of that increased expense comes from providing services for kids diagnosed with milder forms of autism and emotional behavioral disorders. That practice helped increase special-education enrollments in Minnesota, even as national numbers have gone down. In many other states — and under federal rules — those students would not even be eligible for special education.
Earlier this year, a legislative auditor’s report suggested smart ways to address numerous “disincentives’’ that stand in the way of controlling costs. It found, for example, that about 75 percent of state special-education rules exceed what is required by federal regulations. And, the report noted, some of Minnesota’s statutes are inconsistent with the rules of its Education Department.
Researchers have said that some school leaders “overprovide’’ special services, under the logic that giving in to parental demands can be less expensive than lawsuits. To address that concern, the state can do more to clarify differences in state and federal law and to help educators understand exactly what they are obligated to provide. [emphasis added]
Another way to rein in costs would be to prevent the need for special education for some students to begin with. Some schools locally and nationally have tried a strategy called Response to Intervention that identifies struggling students early and gets them extra help, which can be as simple as math lessons in small groups. Using RTI, a Wisconsin school significantly dropped its percentage of special-needs pupils.