Op-Ed: Special Needs Students — Are We Spending Too Much?

Michael Hoban, Ph.D. | October 3, 2012 | Opinion
What if 'doing the right thing' adversely affects the quality of education for other students?

Is it possible that we have reached the point in this country where a school district could be accused of spending “too much” on special needs students — and thereby discriminating against the rest of the school population?

In the United States, we take great pride in our belief that all people will be treated equally regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc. We have laws in place to attempt to guarantee this fact. And we get justifiably upset if we believe that any person or group is attempting to meddle with this important concept.

But as we well know, every so often our best intentions have the effect of our “painting ourselves into a corner.” That is, in an effort to achieve a “good end,” we occasionally create rules and regulations (with the best of intentions) that sometimes lead to unexpected outcomes — that seem to challenge our sense of fair play and common sense.

I am beginning to wonder if we have done this in some districts with our efforts to provide “appropriate” educational help to special needs children. That is, have some school districts “gone overboard” in these efforts – to the extent that by providing this “special help” to some students in “special schools” they are in fact depriving the majority of children of their right to a better education?

Are we, in some cases, discriminating against the majority in our efforts to help the minority?

Laura Waters published an excellent article at NJ Spotlight on September 24. In it she pointed out that on September 5, Gov. Chris Christie’s Education Transformation Task Force released its final report — intended to advance education reform, address inefficiencies in school funding, and streamline the Department of Education’s oversight of New Jersey’s 591 school districts.

In the article, she points out that this third report contains an analysis of the high costs endemic to New Jersey’s practice of sending many special education students to out-of-district schools. (The U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Programs cited New Jersey for having the highest proportion of students with disabilities in separate settings, both public and private.)

“In fact, over the course of the three reports, the Task Force displays a growing preoccupation with the costs of educating special needs children.”

“This culture of segregating children with more severe disabilities in out-of-district placement is expensive. An incisive 2007 report from NJSBA found that special education services cost over $3.3 billion dollars a year in Jersey. [It’s higher now]. The major cost drivers are tuition to out-of-district private special education schools and transportation.”

“According to the NJSBA, out-of-district placements involve 10 percent of New Jersey’s special education population, but make up 40 percent of the total cost of special education.”

It does appear that, in some cases, a group of individuals within a school district (possibly with the best of intentions) has argued the case for “special schools” so successfully for some special needs students that an inappropriate percentage of a school district’s funds has been allocated for this population.

But how would anyone even begin to judge when that point is reached?

Do school districts have any “rules” governing these decisions — to guide them in determining when they may be reaching a point when “too much” money is being spent on special needs children, to the detriment of the rest of the school population?

Does the school district have a well-defined panic button that can be pressed by a school board member (or any caring resident) that alerts the board to the fact that it may be approaching the discrimination point?

Have school districts even addressed the question: How much is too much?

Because no matter how well-intentioned we are, in every school district there is a point where caring for special needs children could become discriminatory.

For many school districts, this is a growing problem – mainly because the number of special needs students seems to grow each year and the cost of educating some in “special schools” seems to escalate with no end in sight.

Let’s take a hypothetical situation. Assume that a public school district spends an average of $15,000 a year to educate each public school student. And let us assume that someone suggests spending $45,000 a year on a particular special needs student in a “special school.” That is three times as much as is spent on a student in the district. Is that appropriate?

Now let us assume that a district proposes to spend $90,000 a year on such a student. That is six times as much as is spent on a student in the district — is that fair?

Now let us assume that the district proposes to spend $90,000 a year on each of 100 such special needs students. That is $9 million spent each year on 100 students. Is that appropriate?

What if that expenditure represents spending over 10 percent of the district’s total educational budget on less than one-half of 1 percent of the district’s children? (Yes, this is happening in at least one district in New Jersey.)

We could go on, of course, and make the situation hypothetically even worse. But I think you get the idea.

When do we reach the point where the expenditure is not appropriate? Common sense tells us that we cannot continue to spend very large sums of money on individual students without reaching the point where an inordinate percentage of the educational budget is spent on one particular group of students.

Simple logic dictates that we could create a hypothetical scenario where it becomes very obvious that the district simply cannot afford such costs. Where the district, in “trying to do the right thing” for some students, actually threatens the quality of education for the majority of the students.

Is common sense always our guiding principle — or should it be? Even though this is a very delicate subject, this should be food for some serious thought and discussion in many of our school districts.