21 October 2005

Special Education Funding

Berthoud Elementary School is naturally reluctant to spend $250,000 a year to educate an 11 year old boy with autism at an extraordinarily expensive school (tuition alone is $130,000 a year) in Boston. As the School Board President explains:

A quarter of a million dollars is a lot of money for us. That's five teachers. That's 125 kids. That's a lot of kids who don't get their needs met.

The parents, however, feel they have no local options to educate their child and want the district to provide an education to their son because it cannot. The case is currently being litigated in federal court. The school district feels a need to fight intensely over the issue because:

Unlike many states, Colorado pays only a fraction of the costs of special education for kids with mental, physical or emotional disabilities. The same is true for students learning English. Add costs for transportation and vocational education, and Colorado covers only 28 percent of what its schools spend for these services.

The shortfall must be carved from the money allotted for the rest of their student body.

Not every child with a disability is stunningly expensive to educate. But, some are very expensive to educate and providing that education is a duty of the state under the state constitution. Where the small number of children who are very expensive to education happen to end up living is virtually random, and the numbers are small enough that the law of averages does not smooth out the numbers in smaller school districts. Also, while local districts with only a handful of special education children are often in a poor position to make rational overall policies, since any rule tends to grow indistinguishable from making policy decisions about individual children.

The reasonable solution is to make special education funding a state function. It is in a better position to evaluate how much is reasonable to spend to educate children with different kinds of disabilities, and it is in a better position if expertise is concentrated, to look for cost effective, educationally sound solutions for children (opening up its own schools if private alternatives are too expensive). It is also in a far better position to spread the costs equitably across the entire system rather than forcing some small school district's other children to be extremely financially squeezed because a child with expensive special needs lives in their district rather than the one next door. The State of Colorado is large enough that the law of averages will keep this expense, at the statewide level, relatively stable from year to year.

I know nothing about the boy in this case. Maybe he needs a $250,000 boarding school education in Boston, or maybe he could receive the education he needs from a full time skilled tutor who could help home school him and a part-time teacher who could assist him in participating in school activities with other children to the extent that this is feasible, for $100,000 a year, while also allowing the boy to live with his parents in Colorado, instead of a boarding school. I don't know. But, I do know that the Thompson School Board, which operates Berthoud Elementary, isn't much better equipped to make that determination than I am, and that they justifiably feel it is unfair for their small district to bear such a high cost with only limited state assistance.

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