Are Special Education Costs Creating Unreasonable Funding Needs in Our Public Schools?

Written by Jason Thomas for

There have been several articles appearing in national magazines over the past couple of years, outlining the woes of public schools that must underwrite the costs to place a special needs student in a private school. I remember one article concerning a California family who sued their school district. They wanted the district to pay the costs to send their special needs child and one parent to a private school on the East Coast, including living costs, transportation and tuition. They won.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act amendments were enacted in 1997. The law now requires that public schools must provide an adequate education for children with disabilities. Since then, many parents, who did not believe their special needs children were receiving an adequate education, have successfully sued their school districts to underwrite the costs for a private education in the school of their choice. With an increase in costs for special education at about $17 billion between 1977 and 2003 (according to a March 2006 article in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette), many public schools are concerned for their already meager budgets.
Jay Greene, head of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas at Fayeteville, says not to worry. Greene released a report in early March that will appear in the next issue of the California-based Hoover Institute’s education journal.
The report indicates that paying for special needs children’s private education is not hurting the bottom line within the public schools. It cites that such private placement of disabled students is extremely rare and “comparatively cheap”. He notes it is more common for public schools to choose to place severely disabled students in private schools due to lack of facilities and teacher training.
During the school years of 2003 and 2004, public schools paid for the private placement of 88,156 special needs students. Greene states that this is only 0.18 percent of student enrollment in public schools nationwide. Additionally, he estimates a cost of an additional $922 million to public schools in the year 2000 to cover private placements. That year, $382 billion was spent by public schools for education. The private placement cost was only 0.24 percent of that total expenditure.
Greene said it was a myth that parents were “bilking” the public schools for a free private education for their special needs children. He believes that special needs education and private placement has become the financial scapegoat for public schools officials. Administrators need a reason for under-funding of school initiatives, low student performance, and the increase in public schools expenditures.
The superintendent of Fort Smith public schools in Arkansas, Benny Goodman, agrees for the most part with Greene. He stated that for large school districts, private placements should have minimal financial impact upon their budgets. He did note, however, that it was a different story for rural and small school districts. Only one private placement of $120,000 each year could reasonably impact their budgets in a burdensome manner. It would be a big deal.
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