Special education services are expensive. Everyone with any knowledge of the field recognizes this. Costs continue to grow per student as services increase in price. As the number of students needing services increases, costs also grow as a percentage of the total cost of education. Rising cost and expanding need affect educational planning at federal, state, and district levels. During an era of shrinking resources and structural shifts for public education, a constant has remained: parents of students with special needs continue to want more from schools than some districts are able to give.
Wanting the best education for a child is nearly universal among parents. Getting this for special needs students can be complicated. In many cases, parents simply want adequate services to meet their child’s needs. Some districts struggle to provide even these basic services. Meanwhile, some students have needs any district would struggle to meet. Providing for special needs students requires a district to invest more than it would for students without special needs. Districts know what resources they must allocate based on the number of special needs students they serve, and they can make reasonable predictions of future expenses based on the incidence of identification in their catchment. Even with this information, providing necessary services can be difficult as shrinking budgets reduce ancillary staff and program availability.
Though federal and state funding helps pay for much of the cost of special education, the cost per student is still two to three times the cost of educating those without special needs. The most expensive students to educate tend to have the greatest needs. In an inverse relationship, the students with the greatest needs tend to be the least likely to ever achieve any kind of meaningful independence after school. Districts must go to great lengths to provide for these students, often fronting the tuition for private schools better equipped to provide services, or assigning staff to work specifically with one student throughout each school day. For some students, districts must purchase and use highly specific educational materials and programs. These often demand costly training for staff prior to implementation. Students sometimes have needs that genuinely demand such provisions to ensure any benefit to their education. However, sometimes needs are less certain, in particular when parents demand outright for a district to provide something they feel their child must have.
Parents should expect districts to meet their children’s educational needs. When districts are failing to do so, some intervention should take place. In special education, determining whether or not districts are meeting needs can be a matter of conjecture. Beyond meeting basic needs, consensus diminishes over what educational benefit means. This varies greatly based on the abilities of the specific students. For most special education students, teams use the criteria established in the IEP to determine progress. Teams may write appropriate, measurable goals for students, but parents can question the fidelity of measurement, thus making suspect any reported progress. In other instances, parents may wish to see more progress than what the school reports, but may not have a grounded notion of how much progress is realistic.
The most challenging situations are those in which parents insist the district provides a service it isn’t prepared to provide. Proving or disproving without a doubt the need for such a service can be next to impossible. It might be a service that would help any student, but is still outside what a district can offer. Parents may find out about such services through the recommendation of a specialist, advocate, or attorney. Districts can be at a disadvantage attempting to prove the new service won’t be of benefit. Who is to know whether or not it will help if the school doesn’t try it? Woe to the district that allows a student to stagnate while an available service goes unused. In other cases, the service might something a parent is fighting to keep in place. This might be during a transfer between schools or long after district officials have deemed the service unnecessary. Since the service has been in place, no one knows how its absence would affect progress. The unknown works to the advantage of parents in all these situations. Such squabbles over educational benefit often are at the heart special education litigation.
These squabbles are where parents and districts can become enemies. Districts by law must provide services deemed necessary for students with disabilities, and as mentioned, doing so is a major expense. Public education is free, and parents of special needs children from the start are getting a pricier service for free than what parents of non-disabled students are getting. With the most disabled students requiring the greatest allocation of services, parents of these students are getting the most from districts, at least as measured by resources used. Despite these efforts and expenses, even when a district can demonstrate a student’s progress, even when a district is struggling to maintain what is in place, parents still may insist on more. When districts resist the possibility of providing yet additional services on the grounds that the services might not be needed, battles frequently ensue. Such battles may tip in favor of the parents as both sides attempt to prove the need for a service, as the district fails to prove a service isn’t necessary. Sadly, what often loses the fight for districts is their own lack of quality data. Additionally, while a district tries to prove it is providing adequately for a student, the perception can be it is trying to save money. This is an unpopular perception.
Through such disagreements, which tend to get settled through hearings of some kind, a district may end up enacting a service that genuinely helps a student. The district may have resisted because of questionable demonstration of need, but the student may go on to excel because of the service. The likelihood of this benefit decreases with the most disabled students. With these students, adding services may be more of an exercise in exhausting possibilities than providing worthwhile programming. The most limited students may go through much of their school life without showing significant, meaningful growth in any area. Through litigation, their parents may force districts to continue adding costly services, because there isn’t a way to completely prove these won’t work. Whether or not such services will help, they definitely will cost a district.
An unfortunate byproduct of this phenomenon is how it affects poor districts. These districts frequently have the greatest proportion of special needs students and thus have the greatest proportion of special education expenditures. By the virtue of being poor districts, they struggle with providing adequate services to an already needy population. Having large numbers of special needs students and being unable to adequately serve them puts these districts at unusually great risk of litigation brought forward by parents. Litigation is rampant and draining in poor districts. Many parents in these communities approach schools with a combative or at least defensive attitude. They can be the most likely parents to seek legal recourse at the mere suggestion of wrongdoing or denial.
The damage all this causes is troubling for districts. Money is set aside for special education spending, but when extra services are demanded or legal action is involved, districts have to find ways to pay for the unexpected. Some large districts figure loss through litigation into their budgets. This means money that could be used to support higher functioning students is being held back with the expectation the district will have to bleed it to correct oversights and placate parents. These outlays could cost the same per year as having several additional teachers or providing an enrichment program for gifted and talented students. Suggesting anything about this being unfair can get a person branded as an insensitive conservative zealot.
Parents of special needs students get a relatively expensive service for free. Many insist on more for their children than what they get. Sometimes this is justified, while other times it is questionable. Parents can’t be told they should adjust they’re expectations to meet what they’re paying for services. No administrator will say to a parent, “Well, you get what you pay for.” However, realistic expectations and an agreement to let schools do the best they can do could save undue consternation. Yes, schools must provide appropriate services for free. This doesn’t and shouldn’t mean they must provide every conceivable service regardless of cost. Disagreement over this notion seems poised to continue costing districts well into the future.