Rising Cost of Special Ed in Minnesota Schools

According to federal laws, public schools and those post-secondary institutions accepting public monies (most colleges and universities accepts grants and federal monies) must make every “reasonable” effort to accommodate students with special needs. What is reasonable when schools are running deficits?
Rising Special Ed Cases are Huge Cost
by Jeffrey Meitrodt and Kim McGuire, Star Tribune

Updated: March 3, 2013 - 6:07 AM

Room 112 is walled off from the rest of a Maplewood public school by an ugly row of concrete blocks.

Its wooden entrance was replaced with a steel door, and the carpet and plumbing fixtures removed, all so its sole occupant — an 8-year-old boy prone to attacking teachers and classmates — would have nothing to destroy during his daily outbursts. Even his books and toys were kept on a cart that could be wheeled away at a moment’s notice.

Every school day, the boy, who has autism and doesn’t speak, came to the barren cell built only for him. Two adults spent all their time teaching him to communicate.

The price? $153,000 for a year of instruction, nearly 20 times what’s spent on a student without special needs. “The costs are staggering,” said Connie Hayes, superintendent of the public school district that built the classroom.
Staggering? For $153,000 you can pay for a “regular” class of 15 to 20 students. That's including the salary of the average teacher, supplies, fixtures, and maintenance. One student costs what an entire classroom costs. That is difficult to justify — there must be a more cost-effective and inclusive approach. But, what do we do with students posing a risk to themselves and others?
A decade ago, the boy would have been institutionalized. Today, he’s sent to public school. His education in Room 112 tells a larger story of a growing predicament confronting schools across Minnesota.
I cannot argue for institutionalization, but I have met parents and teachers injured by students. Large children and teens are easily the size and strength of an adult teacher. The reality is that few people would be able to properly restrain and calm a violent teenager with paranoid schizophrenia.

But, the majority of costs are not the violent students. The basic educational needs of students with disabilities are naturally more demanding and more expensive than the needs of most other students. (We can argue overall funding, but plenty of studies reveal U.S. spending per student is slightly above average for advanced nations. Like healthcare, we spend more… and get about the same or slightly less for the money.)

Autism is among the special needs behind the rising costs.
A sharp rise in students diagnosed with major disabilities is forcing many schools to take difficult and at times divisive new steps to tailor classrooms to the disabled students’ needs, no matter how expensive that gets.

Even as overall school enrollment declined over the past decade, the number of disabled students rose 14 percent, reaching 128,000. That includes a fivefold increase in students with autism.
Children with autism become teenagers and adults with autism. How will our schools deal with these students, who would have been institutionalized as recently as the early 1980s?
At 17, Orion — whose handicaps include autism and cerebral palsy — has attended schools in five districts in Minnesota and Wisconsin. His mother, Shelbi Setchell, battled administrators at almost every stop, starting when he was stuck with a “washroom” for a classroom in first grade.

[…] 
She knows her son, who weighs 185 pounds and often slurs his words, can be difficult. His hearing is hypersensitive, and he can turn violent when surprised by loud noises or if he feels threatened. He has no school-age friends. He’s been invited to just one birthday party in his entire life, and it was a disaster.
The only solutions schools can provide cost money. A lot of money.
Orion now attends the North Education Center, a $35 million facility that opened last fall. It is the envy of special education directors around the state.

Compared to noisy, makeshift classrooms used by special ed students in many parts of the state, Orion’s new classroom is state of the art. He has his own timeout room where he can relax under a revolving mood light. He keeps the light green, his favorite color.

His carpeted classroom contains a swing and a rocking chair for working off excess energy. The smartboard includes a video game Orion designed with his teacher — a variation on Concentration using corporate logos, one of his obsessions.

For occupational therapy, Orion rides a customized tricycle (starting price: $1,980) down the hall built extra wide so two trikes can easily pass. Staffers keep tabs on him by checking any of the 131 camera lenses mounted in 41 locations throughout the building.
Consider that the student has his own space. His own tricycle. I'm not sure how that constitutes “occupational therapy” but there must be some rationale for such an expense. At some point, other parents are going to raise the issue of “fairness” and politicians will listen. While I can argue that supports for students with special needs lower long-term costs, parents might not see it that way.
Orion’s education isn’t cheap. Each of the 40 students in his program costs about $70,000 per year, more than three times the average special ed student in the state. Altogether 250 staff members, including teachers, therapists and social workers, work with the school’s 450 students.
 It’s a similar story at the other special districts serving the Twin Cities. These so-called intermediate districts have some of the highest average student costs in the state.
Schools are going broke — primarily as a result of special education expenses. What can we do better? How can we reduce these costs and still meet the needs of students. And how can we work towards including students in classrooms, whenever possible? Clearly, some students will not be part of the traditional classroom, so they remain cost-intensive and labor-intensive for schools.
Like most school districts in Minnesota, St. Paul doesn’t receive enough money from the state and federal government to pay for its special education costs.

In its case, the funding gap is about $36 million, or 37 percent of the $98 million it spent on special education last year.

In Minneapolis, which is facing a $34 million funding gap for special education, administrators are considering $25 million in budget cuts.

Still, Minneapolis paid $14.7 million to other districts for special education services last year, including $3.9 million to District 287 to cover the costs of 168 disabled students. Casey said Minneapolis made just 10 of those referrals to District 287.
Ironically, federal laws and regulations make it impossible to cut spending, even if it is possible to switch from one expensive approach to a more cost-effective (and educationally superior) approach to special education. Yes, that's government for you: better and cheaper is not allowed without a serious fight against the Dept. of Education. Good luck winning that battle.
For many superintendents, the most frustrating federal rule is one that prohibits schools from reducing special education costs unless they can document enrollment declines or other special factors. 
Ed Saxton, superintendent of the St. Francis school district in the north metro, estimated his district could save as much as $500,000 by replacing an older communications device with iPads. But he said the rules make it almost impossible to switch.

“Over the past 10 years, we’ve cut art and music in elementary. We’ve cut activity buses. Our class sizes are higher than they used to be. … The one place you can’t cut is special education,” Saxton said. “Why aren’t we looking at the most efficient ways of servicing our kids with the highest needs? It doesn’t make any sense the way we do it.”
And then, we have another reminder that not every student can be served properly in public schools. For the parents of these students, schools provide a break — but schools can only do so much. What they can do, is expensive and not significantly better than institutionalization.
One of the most expensive students in Minnesota landed in the special education wing of John Glenn Middle School when he was 8 years old.
The boy, who was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, could not speak or communicate with even the most rudimentary symbols, according to District 916 principal Mollie Wise, who helped design the boy’s instructional program. 
At his previous school, he had been disrobing every day and urinating or defecating in class. When staff members tried to remove him, he would become violent, hitting or biting anyone who got too close.

“Everyone said this might be the hardest student you’ll ever work with,” Wise said.

District 916 decided to build him his own classroom, one in which his aggression could be contained. It cost $88,000, and is the most expensive of the eight rooms the district has built for individual students in the past five years. The district declined to identify the boy for privacy reasons.

“It’s a safe, simplified environment,” said Naidicz, 916’s special ed director.
These are difficult issues, even in the best of economic times. With schools in many northern states dealing with declining enrollments, small tax bases, and other issues, special education budgets are the overwhelming source of deficits. We need a solution, one that serves all students.

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