Special education costs squeeze all classrooms

Second-grader Damian Thompson was belted into a wooden chair on a recent Friday morning at Laura MacArthur Elementary, eyes dancing around the room as his teacher, paraprofessionals and a registered nurse sang the ABCs.

Damian Thompson in class
Second-grader Damian Thompson smiles as he listens to paraprofessional Joy Fouts sing "Itsy Bitsy Spider" in class at Laura MacArthur Elementary School recently. (Bob King /

Second-grader Damian Thompson was belted into a wooden chair on a recent Friday morning at Laura MacArthur Elementary, eyes dancing around the room as his teacher, paraprofessionals and a registered nurse sang the ABCs.

Special education teacher Cindy Gordon presented Damian with a choice of markers to draw a "W," and he picked orange. When he perfectly executed the letter on a board, his eyes grew bright and he raised his arms and shouted, "Yay!"

In Gordon's class of severely disabled students, the children seldom speak. Five adults care for and teach six students. What would appear to be an everyday activity for most students, like walking up the stairs or choosing a specific-colored marker, is considered a milestone for some kids here and in other classes like Gordon's.

But the equipment, space and staff needed for special education students is expensive -- and that expense is being pointed to as one of the main reasons for recent deficits in school districts throughout the state.

A case in point: Serving the 21 students in the deaf and hard of hearing program costs the Duluth school district, on average, about $40,000 per student last year.


Duluth used $8 million from its general fund last year to pay for special education programs required -- but not paid for -- by the state and federal governments. That meant taking $800 of state funding from each student and putting it toward special education.

About 17 percent of Duluth public school students are enrolled in special education programs, ranging from infants to age 21. Special education expenses for those students cost, on average, $14,126 last year.

It's a tough issue to talk about, because no one wants to suggest that special education students don't need or deserve the money, said Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. And, legally, services must be provided.

"You don't want to blame special education kids for not getting enough money," Cassellius said: " 'A class size of 42 kids? It's because you're paying for special education.' Nobody wants to have that message."

Since the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, all public school districts are required to provide equal access to education for children with mental and physical disabilities. That was amended to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990.

Cassellius and other educators across the state, including those in Duluth, are advocating for more state money to pay for special education mandates. Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal includes an increase in per-pupil funding that would help, but the amount would only begin to solve the problem.

A growing gap

The special education funding gap is a growing problem in the state -- especially in regional special education centers like Duluth, which has had to increase class sizes, shrink course offerings and lay off teachers to meet the mandates.


A report released by the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor this month found that school districts have had to use a large proportion of their general funds -- a diversion that education officials call a "cross-subsidy" -- to pay special education costs. The report found that from 2000 to 2011, cross-subsidies statewide increased 40 percent in 2011 dollars adjusted for inflation.

In Duluth, that number grew from $4 million in 2004 to $8 million in 2011.

The report also found that the number of students enrolled in special education programs increased 11 percent during that period, even as the total number of K-12 students declined. Special education staff members also increased throughout the state by 25 percent.

"We are at the tipping point," said Duluth School Board member Judy Seliga Punyko, addressing the squeeze created by special education mandates. "Look at these costs. How do we do this anymore?"

Because Duluth is a regional center for special education, it serves students from the Twin Cities area and others who transfer here for treatment at facilities such as hospitals, Woodland Hills and other residential programs.

It serves students from smaller community schools that aren't able to provide some facilities and staff members that Duluth offers. Resident districts pay Duluth for those services, roughly $1.2 million in total, though the district said that doesn't cover all of its costs.

Duluth also paid $2.3 million last year to other districts for special education students who open-enrolled elsewhere.

Another cost cited in the auditor's report involves 18- to 21-year-old special education students. In better economic times, counties have helped them transition into work programs. When counties lose money for such programs, as many have, schools are obligated to keep special education students until they are 21.


The cross-subsidy is directly related to school district deficits across the state, said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the state teacher's union. But it shouldn't be up to the local property taxpayer to cover the expenses, he said, noting that federal and state governments should be doing more to pay for their mandates.

"Special education learners aren't getting what they need and general education learners aren't getting what they need," Dooher said. "Think of what you can do with $8 million dollars. ... Students get lost in the story."

Special education hit, too

Class sizes have reached all-time highs in Duluth, especially at the two high schools and Ordean East Middle School. Special education students are affected, too.

Many of the Duluth district's 1,540 special education students spend a good deal of time in general education classes. In high school, for example, classes like art and family and consumer science enroll many special education students. Such classes this year have enrollments of 40 or more.

For kids like those in Gordon's class, some of the equipment is outdated and one-on-one attention is no longer possible. Occupational, physical and speech therapy is stretched thin, and special education teachers are taught to provide some of that therapy to their students, Gordon said, taking time away from teaching duties.

Special education paperwork also is a problem, and was one of the items criticized in the audit. The state Education Department has a new way to streamline the process for things like individualized education programs, which will save districts time and money.

Integrating special education students into general classes for part of the day is good for all students because it teaches acceptance and tolerance, said Heidi Lyle, who has a caseload of 16 students who fall under the autism spectrum disorder category at East High School.


East picked up a peer mentoring program from Denfeld for juniors and seniors, meant to teach social skills to those in special education. It's encouraged many special education students to come out of their shells, Lyle said, and several went to state hockey tournaments this year on the fan bus because of relationships formed through the program.

"Students are, for the most part, amazingly accepting of the kids in our programs," she said.

Why they're here

The world is full of "medical miracles" -- children who might not have survived their medical problems in previous generations and certainly would not have received a full education, said Laura Fredrickson, special services director for the Duluth school district.

That means increased costs from nurses, therapists, special transportation and interpreters. That's why the new schools have larger special education facilities, with calming rooms and kitchens to teach life skills.

"It's important to give them the fullest life and opportunity as possible," Fredrickson said.

Julie Guddeck's daughter attends Gordon's class of severely multiply impaired students, who, on average, cost $19,500 a year to educate. Kaylea, a second-grader, is physically, cognitively and developmentally delayed. The 8-year-old has a shock of curly hair, sits in a pink wheelchair and has a love of music and books.

Funding for kids like Kaylea isn't just expensive for schools, she said. She's had to take second and third jobs her daughter's entire life to pay for her care because insurance doesn't cover everything.


In class, every interaction is celebrated -- for example, whenever a student shows a want or need, smiles or laughs or walks with little assistance. Anytime the tools they've been taught are used, it's exciting, Gordon said.

She read "Red Hat" to her students recently, a book about animals and a winter hat. At the end, a hedgehog falls asleep wearing a hat. When Gordon closed the book, she recalled, second-grader Damian said: "Night, night."

"So you knew he was following the story," she said.

Kaylea has done a lot of things that her parents never believed she'd be able to do, like being taught to walk up a stair with assistance and pick up food, said Guddeck, who teaches deaf and hard of hearing students at Denfeld High School.

"It's going to take a lifetime of support," she said, "but she's my child and I will do anything for her."

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