Credit: Jane Meredith Adams/EdSource
Music class at Rogers Elementary in Chula Vista includes students receiving special education services.
Updated at 4 p.m. on Nov. 18, 2019.

Spending on special education students in California has increased by just over 20 percent over the past decade — from $10.8 billion to $13 billion in inflation-adjusted figures, according to a new report.

That’s just one of the startling figures in the report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office that provides a detailed overview of California’s special education system, which now serves some 800,000 students with physical, cognitive and learning disabilities.

They make up about 1 in 8 of California’s public school students.

Despite the massive investment, special education students lag behind almost all other student groups on a range of measures, such as average test scores and graduation rates. They also are suspended from school and are chronically absent — which means absent from school for 10 percent or more of the instructional year — at higher rates.

The majority of students have relatively mild disabilities like speech impairments and specific learning disabilities like dyslexia. However, the number of students with severe disabilities has increased substantially, doubling over the past two decades, according to the report.

The biggest increase has been in the proportion of children diagnosed with autism, which has risen from 1 in 600 students in 1997-98 to 1 in 50 students in 2017-18 — a 12-fold increase.

The report comes against a backdrop of concerns among state leaders that the special education has not undergone much-needed reforms in areas compared to other parts of the education system.

As part of the budget legislation approved earlier this year (now part of the California Education Code), in order for certain state funds to be allocated for special education next year, the Legislature will be required to come up with a number of reforms ”to improve the academic outcomes of individuals with exceptional needs.”

The Legislative Analyst’s report underscored the extraordinary financial pressures on local school districts to educate students with disabilities.

The average cost of educating a special education student each year is $26,000, compared to $9,000 to educate a “general education” student. Costs vary widely depending on the disability of each student, the LAO report notes. For example, it might cost $1,000 a year to provide a student with periodic speech therapy, while a student in an out-of-state non-public school with severe emotional problems might cost a district $100,000 a year.

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school districts are required to provide special education students with the services they need, as spelled out in what is called an Individualized Education Plan agreed to by parents and school officials.

Beth Burt, president of the Autism Society of California, said that the state has made considerable progress in serving students with significant disabilities, such as autism.

Most school districts, she said, have autism specialists and many offer speech and occupational therapy. She said her son, who is now 26, was diagnosed with autism when he was 3. He graduated from high school with honors and is now working, thanks in part to the many services he received in the schools he attended.

The success of her son and others like him provides ample justification for whatever expense is involved, Burt said. “What is that dollar amount that we are willing to invest to make every student a productive member of our community?” Burt said. “If we as a society were to say ‘We don’t want to invest in a student because he or she has a certain diagnosis,’ who is to say who is more or less deserving of an education? The alternative is unthinkable.”

One major problem in covering costs is that despite mandating that school districts provide needed and often expensive services, the federal government has never paid anything remotely close to what the original law set as its goal in 1977. The federal government was supposed to pay each state the equivalent of 40 percent of the average national per-student expenditure on education multiplied by the number of special education students in that state.

But because of inflation and the failure of congressional allocations to keep up with rising costs, the gap between what the federal government is paying and should be paying continues to widen, most dramatically over the past decade. That gap is now estimated to be $3.2 billion, according to the LAO report.

Congress has also avoided dealing with the issue by failing to reauthorize the federal disability law, something it is supposed to do every five years. But the last time it did so was in 2004. There had been some talk of reauthorization happening this year, but in the current fractious climate in Washington that is unlikely to happen.

Local school districts have had to pick up an ever-increasing share of the costs. On average, California school districts now pay 61 percent of the costs, up from 49 percent just a decade ago, according to the LAO report.

School districts are even required to pay for special education services for students attending private schools. Last year districts covered special education services for about 2,300 students attending private schools in California, the report noted.

Another flaw in how California underwrites special education is that state funds are mostly allocated based on total district enrollment, not based on the number of students in special education, or the severity of their disabilities.

Special education was the focus of considerable attention while Jerry Brown was governor. A Statewide Special Education Task Force created by the State Board of Education and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing issued a 220-page report in 2015 with multiple recommendations, including creating a “culture of collaboration and coordination” across numerous state agencies and giving school districts more control over special education funds.

But few of its reforms were implemented.

Michael Kirst, the president of the State Board of Education during Brown’s tenure between 2011 and 2018, lamented that the failure to reform the special education system represented a major piece of unfinished business in the state.

Reform is now a high priority for Linda Darling-Hammond, the current president of the state board, and she and Gov. Gavin Newsom are exploring a range of options.

Correction: Based on corrected figures from the Legislative Analyst's Office, the amount spent on special education has increased 20.4 percent over the past decade, not by nearly 30 percent, as stated in our original article.

We need your help ...

Unlike many news outlets, EdSource does not secure its content behind a paywall. We believe that informing the largest possible audience about what is working in education — and what isn't — is far more important.

Once a year, however, we ask our readers to contribute as generously as they can so that we can do justice to reporting on a topic as vast and complex as California's education system — from early education to postsecondary success.

Thanks to support from several philanthropic foundations, EdSource is participating in NewsMatch. As a result, your tax-deductible gift to EdSource will be worth three times as much to us — and allow us to do more hard hitting, high-impact reporting that makes a difference. Don’t wait. Please make a contribution now.

Share Article

Comments (8)

Leave a Reply to Bo Loney

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. susan bowen 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Look for the costs to rise now that more children are going to be damaged by more and more toxic ingredients in vaccines: Aluminum, mercury, fetus dna, SV-40…. 🙁 My child almost died from the measles shot and spent two years in speech therapy after coming out of her practically 5 day coma. Rise up parents.

  2. Rita 1 month ago1 month ago

    The high cost of special education is many times associated with the litigation to demy children needed services. In one, Ninth Circuit court of appeals case, the Alta Loma School District is suing the child over a request for a vision assessment that would have cost the district $1,000. To add insult to injury, the SELPA cap for such assessment is $1,000 so it is literally a dispute over zero dollars but yet … Read More

    The high cost of special education is many times associated with the litigation to demy children needed services. In one, Ninth Circuit court of appeals case, the Alta Loma School District is suing the child over a request for a vision assessment that would have cost the district $1,000. To add insult to injury, the SELPA cap for such assessment is $1,000 so it is literally a dispute over zero dollars but yet for profit litigation firms are making money hand over fist. Lawyers instead of teachers have been put in the driver’s seat in special education, and lawyers charge a lot more than teachers do. #Moreteacherslesslawyers

  3. Dr. Bill Conrad 1 month ago1 month ago

    The Special Education system in California is a black box. It is certainly true that educators are doing miraculous work with our severely disabled students as I have seen their work in action in many school districts across California. Kudos to our the heroic educators who provide this valuable support to the most in need within our community. The students with disabilities within California are performing very poorly on state tests. With most grade … Read More

    The Special Education system in California is a black box. It is certainly true that educators are doing miraculous work with our severely disabled students as I have seen their work in action in many school districts across California. Kudos to our the heroic educators who provide this valuable support to the most in need within our community.

    The students with disabilities within California are performing very poorly on state tests. With most grade levels demonstrating single digit meeting or exceeding standards. Certainly not all of our special education students are so severely cognitively impaired that such a small percentage of them can meet or exceed standards in ELA and Math!

    Too many of our students of color are being labelled as needing special services because the adults in the system are unable to adequately support these students and use the Special Education system to label the students as Emotionally Disturbed because they do not fit the mold expected by mostly white teachers. These children get warehoused in Special Education programs that deny them access to the grade level standards. This is a racist policy that should be ended.

    We need much more openness and transparency to the Special Education system overall so that we can understand the big picture of the system in order to identify ways to improve the system for all students and not use it as a repository for students of color!

    It is time to deeply evaluate the Special Education system in California and not continue to blame flaws in the system on a lack of funding. Funding may be adequate but the theory of action for the system may not be appropriate.

    Replies

    • Greg Baird 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

      Dr. Conrad has a point here. Racist is a strong word that implies harmful intent, but a quick analysis of Dr. Conrad's website shows that there is clearly an achievement gap between Black/Hispanic students and White/Asian students. This is a society issue as well as an educational one. Teachers need to understand where their students are coming from and design lessons that help students from all cultures to learn. At … Read More

      Dr. Conrad has a point here. Racist is a strong word that implies harmful intent, but a quick analysis of Dr. Conrad’s website shows that there is clearly an achievement gap between Black/Hispanic students and White/Asian students. This is a society issue as well as an educational one. Teachers need to understand where their students are coming from and design lessons that help students from all cultures to learn. At the same time, parents of all races need to prepare their children to succeed in our education system. By removing students from SPED who don’t actually have learning disabilities, SPED teachers will be able to focus their efforts on helping real SPED students. Together we can improve the lives of all Californians.

  4. Jennifer Bestor 1 month ago1 month ago

    $100 million of special education funding is being diverted to pay the state's local trial court obligations this year, up from $17 million when the diversion started in 2014. How? Property tax allocated to each county's County Office of Education is split between the COE's oversight functions and its SELPAs. The SELPAs get anything from 0% - 80% based on whether or not a county levied a separate special education property tax … Read More

    $100 million of special education funding is being diverted to pay the state’s local trial court obligations this year, up from $17 million when the diversion started in 2014. How? Property tax allocated to each county’s County Office of Education is split between the COE’s oversight functions and its SELPAs. The SELPAs get anything from 0% – 80% based on whether or not a county levied a separate special education property tax in September 1977 and, if so, how big that levy was. (Yes, effectively randomly.)

    When some COEs began to receive more property tax revenues on the oversight side than their LCFF targets, rather than shift the extra into their SELPAs, the Legislature redirected the “excess” to pay the state’s share of local trial court costs. Since SELPA funding comes out of the Prop 98 Minimum Guarantee, but trial court costs never have, the Legislature stuck education with the cost of this completely unrelated obligation. Just another of the property tax shell games that keep California school funding inadequate. (California Ed Code Sections 2571 and 2575. Counties currently having funds redirected: Monterey, San Diego, Orange, Placer, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Marin, San Mateo, Santa Clara.)

  5. Bo Loney 1 month ago1 month ago

    I hope that Hammond and Newsom take into consideration that academically gifted and talented students also fall under the term of students with exceptional needs under Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act.

  6. Ann 1 month ago1 month ago

    'The report comes against a backdrop of concerns among state leaders that the special education has not undergone much-needed reforms in areas compared to other parts of the education system.' Implication being the other parts have experienced 'reform' leading to improved or even improving outcomes. But no such thing is true as the rest of the Legislative Analysts report and NAEP and CASSP show clearly. The money went to the unions pure and simple. All … Read More

    ‘The report comes against a backdrop of concerns among state leaders that the special education has not undergone much-needed reforms in areas compared to other parts of the education system.’ Implication being the other parts have experienced ‘reform’ leading to improved or even improving outcomes. But no such thing is true as the rest of the Legislative Analysts report and NAEP and CASSP show clearly. The money went to the unions pure and simple. All of us who work in California know this to be true.

    Replies

    • Dan Plonsey 1 month ago1 month ago

      "The money went to the unions" wrong: the unions are paid only by teachers, paying dues. But maybe you meant to say that unions are winning exorbitant raises for teachers? Which would also be false, because teachers' salaries are not keeping up with cost of living, and therefore teachers are leaving the profession. Actually, my union, BFT (Berkeley), made increased special ed funding and caseload caps part of our recent contract campaign. This article does … Read More

      “The money went to the unions” wrong: the unions are paid only by teachers, paying dues. But maybe you meant to say that unions are winning exorbitant raises for teachers? Which would also be false, because teachers’ salaries are not keeping up with cost of living, and therefore teachers are leaving the profession. Actually, my union, BFT (Berkeley), made increased special ed funding and caseload caps part of our recent contract campaign.

      This article does not mention 1) the amount of time required for special ed teachers to complete paperwork (rather than actually serve students) has increased dramatically over recent years, and 2) charter schools, which underserve special ed students, leave the public schools with way more than 12.5% special ed. In some Oakland schools the proportion is twice that, I’ve heard, with no increase in funding.