“Extra-special education at public expense”

The amazing industry that has sprung up to advance parents’ demands that schools accommodate their “learning-disabled” offspring is an old story around these parts (see here and here, for example). Even so, the San Francisco Chronicle’s recent investigative report can provoke a gasp:

* Even though federal, state and other sources already spend more than $4 billion a year to subsidize the provision of special education in the state of California, school districts in the state still shift more than a billion dollars out of their regular school budgets to pay for accommodation demands that include “private day schools, boarding schools, summer camps, aqua therapy, horseback therapy, travel costs, personal aides” and dolphin therapy.

* Administrators at Woodside High on the Peninsula offered a 15-year-old with learning disabilities and anxiety “daily help from a special education expert” as well as “a laptop computer, extra time for tests — and an advocate to smooth any ripples with teachers. If an anxiety attack came on, he could step out of class.” Not good enough for his parents, who decided to send him to a $30,000/year private school in Maine. Their lawyer demanded that the district pay not only the tuition but also for the whole family’s repeated cross-country travel costs to visit him there.

* Schools routinely buckle under to demands they regard as unreasonable, not only to avoid the expense of litigation but because the law tilts against them; a single procedural misstep in the hugely complicated process can leave them liable for damages and hefty legal fees. Since secret settlements are common, taxpayers may find it hard to grasp the extent of the monetary hemorrhaging.

* “It’s a blank check,” said [Paul] Goldfinger, vice president of School Services. “The system is stacked so that one segment of the population — disabled children — has first call on funding, and the others get whatever’s left.”

Infuriating reading (Nanette Asimov, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 19). (& see Mar. 31 post, where comments continue).


  • I reported on this as a cub reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1990s. I covered a small South Jersey school district that was forced to abandon its gym, music and art program for the sake of one “special” child who required 24-hour boarding. I could not understand why the school district was forced to pay not only for his “special” education, but his meals and medical care, too. I was met with “shame on you” responses for inquiring into this, because of the sacred nature of “special” children (never mind a check into the specifics of his “special” status, which these days covers 4/5 of all children by one designation or another). But “blank check” is right – this is essentially a bottomless entitlement that escapes scrutiny and distorts even liberal notions of distributive justice.

  • I am a conservative who believes in restraining government spending. I am also the father of a special needs child. While I understand the concerns expressed, I have also been on the other side of the coin, and seen attempts to give short shrift to children with profound needs. What is missing in this debate (as in so many others in contemporary policy) is the simple common sense test. The rights of persons with disabilities should be protected, but not at unlimited expense.

  • My nephew has been diagnosed with Aspberger’s syndrome. In Colorado, this entitled him to a range of special educations services. These ended abruptly when he tested as gifted in mathematics; apparently it’s unthinkable to treat someone as disabled if he is also gifted.

    There is no rationality to the system because there is, as Jeff Hall says, no room for common sense.

  • The child mentioned in the second point, and especially the child mentioned in the first post are both excellent examples of children who SHOULDN’T be in the school system at all.

    The school system’s budget is for “education”, not medical expenses or other such things.

  • No government agency is capable of common sense.

  • Ditto to Jeff Hall — me too. And ironically, our community pays over $60,000 for educating our son in a special needs school because they prefer to ship him elsewhere than to implement a program in-school.

  • “And ironically, our community pays over $60,000 for educating our son in a special needs school because they prefer to ship him elsewhere than to implement a program in-school.”

    Are you suggesting that “implment[ing] a program in-school” would be cheaper? Not likely…

  • A quick word for Deoxy – my son is not having his medical needs met at school. He has doctors for that. He is being educated in school, but educated to function at the basic levels of society, not do calculus. Spending money to help special needs children learn to function only saves long term societal costs later. What I am saying is that there is a place to provide for the common good AND act in a way that insures common sense. Maybe I am still too young and idealistic, but I hope that markm is wrong when he says that no government agency is capable of common sense.

  • School Choice for the Legally Savvy Parent

    It appears that at least one group of students in California get a school choice program: Those with irritating but legally savvy parents. (Hat tip to Overlawyered)In Sonoma County, for example, a family recently enrolled its child in an out-of-state

  • Jeff,

    My wife is a special-ed teacher.

    From that perspective, depending on the severity of the child’s problems and the area of the country (as average salaries vary,etc), $60,000 a year for the kid could vary from “rip off” to “OMG that’s cheap!”

    Assuming the kid has some fairly severe problems (no time spent in “mainstream” classroom), $60,000/year would vary from “somewhat over-priced” to “ULTRA-CHEAP”, depending on the area.

    In short, that’s only a rip off and/or a waste of tax-payer money if the kid has fairly limited disabilities. Well, that’s also assuming he’s the only kid – there is SOME economy of scale, though not a lot.

  • deoxy, yes I am — we’re talking Aspergers Syndrome…and enough others in the district to construct a small program for them in-school…

    The transportation alone to the sped school is $33,000. That’s (min) one highly-trained teacher already, for the cost of one kid’s van ride.

    [editor’s note: thread continues here].

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