SAN DIEGO — Special education — which serves students with a wide range of issues, from learning disabilities to autism to hyperactivity disorder to blindness — is driving some area districts to spend beyond their means.

The number of students needing special education services and the costs of those services have climbed faster than the federal or state money that pays for them, county district data show.

Though the services are guaranteed by law, neither the federal government nor the state of California provide enough to pay for them. That squeezes already tight school budgets, so administrators have to make do with fewer dollars for other student programs.

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“It’s got to come out of somewhere else,” said Paul Warren, an education research associate with the Public Policy Institute of California. “What they’re saying is, ‘We don’t have enough money to pay for everything.'”

Yet what is provided sometimes isn’t enough. Some parents and advocates complain that children with special needs are being denied services because of cost.

Jane Whitney, a special education advocate who has worked with parents in San Diego County for 18 years, said she has seen schools withdraw or reduce special education services in recent years, failing to implement accommodations called for in students’ education plans and substituting cheaper, less effective services.

Students with disabilities usually receive individualized education programs, called IEPs, which disclose the educational services each student with special needs can expect. The programs often include specialized classroom instruction, vocational training, therapy and physical education.

Districts must offer special education to comply with federal law, which calls for a “free and appropriate” public education for each student with disabilities.

But Whitney said some schools have replaced the weekly, one-on-one speech therapy sessions some students get with shorter intervals of speech therapy for small groups of students. And some schools have used aides instead of speech-language pathologists to run those sessions.

Aides are cheaper. Speech and language pathologists in California made an average of $92,280 in 2017, while teacher aides made $34,290, according to U.S. News salary rankings.

“Now I’m sitting in IEP meetings and I am in disbelief at some of the services cut out of them, which seem to be half as much as previously offered,” Whitney said.

A higher price tag

National figures show that special education often costs twice as much per student as general education.

Experts on the one hand, caution against viewing special education as a cost by itself, as if it were a competing priority. Special education, they say, is part of the overall mission of public schools.

On the other hand, special education is one of the fastest-growing costs for school districts.

The 42 districts in San Diego County spent a combined $1 billion or more on special education in the last school year, out of a combined $5-billion-plus in overall school spending. That’s up 32 percent from the more than $792 million spent on special education five years ago, according to district data.

(Several districts did not provide complete data, including San Pasqual Union, Valley Center-Pauma Unified and Solana Beach.)

Meanwhile the number of students with disabilities in San Diego county grew by 19 percent since 2012, while overall school enrollment grew only 2 percent.

Enrollment affects funding. Generally, the fewer students a district has, the less state funding it receives because state formulas are largely based on student counts.

For some districts — including Oceanside Unified, Escondido Union and Ramona Unified — enrollment dipped while special education numbers climbed.

At least 19 districts in San Diego county saw special education spending rise faster over the past five years than general district spending.

When that happens districts struggle to adjust. They can’t, by law, skimp on services for students with special needs.

Christy Scadden, a parent of a student in special education and an advocate with Pacific Coast Advocates, said many special education programs are operating in triage mode.

“Districts are more reactive to problems with students instead of proactive,” she said. “They wait until a student with an IEP is failing, because the services or the program wasn’t enough at the time.”

Shelly Lana, whose 14-year-old son, Otto, was diagnosed with autism at age 2, said she believes San Diego Unified years ago resisted her requests to test his intellectual abilities because of costs. They initially placed him in a program with classes that teach life skills but with low academic expectations, Lana said.

After her family paid thousands of dollars for private testing and therapy, Otto learned to communicate using a letter board, she said, and now, at a private school, he is academically on track for a high school diploma in a few years.

San Diego Unified officials said they cannot discuss an individual student’s case.

Sarah Ott, San Diego Unified’s executive director of special education, said in a separate interview that money is not a factor when it comes to providing services to students with special needs.

“It really doesn’t impact our students or the programs that they’re in, because we’re required to give them whatever they need,” Ott said.

San Diego Unified, California’s second largest school district, currently spends $214 million on special education out of its unrestricted general fund to help pay for services for 13,500 students with disabilities. By 2021, it is expected to spend $244 million.

Schools must provide necessary services for students with disabilities regardless of funding, but schools and families don’t always see eye to eye about those needs, added Kelly Prins, assistant superintendent of student support services for Escondido Union School District.

“We’re required to provide a free and appropriate education,” Prins said. “There’s debate over what’s appropriate. There may be a disagreement between staff and a parent, and that’s where there may be a disconnect.”

Special education advocates and parents argue that when a school chips away at a students’ accommodations, cost considerations are likely involved.

“We all know what the pushback is, and it’s money,” said Whitney, the advocate. “I get what they’re up against, but it’s not supposed to be about money.”

Students with disabilities need more and different kinds of staff to help them learn. That can include reading specialists for students with dyslexia, speech and language pathologists for students with speech impediments, and occupational therapists to help students with tasks like writing or using the bathroom.

Students with disabilities often need smaller class sizes, too, and some need one-on-one aides.

For a student with severe disabilities, a district may have to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for tuition at a private school, if a public campus can’t provide the services that student needs.

“It’s education’s job to really help every student reach their highest potential,” Warren said. “For some young children, their goals might be learning how to tie their shoes and learning how to sit in a chair and do something for an hour.”

Other students in special education have average or high intellectual skills, despite developmental and learning issues. Their goals can include earning a high school diploma and attending college.

Broken promises in special ed funding

The federal government has never given as much money as it initially promised, experts said.

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed in 1975, Congress pledged to pay 40 percent of special education costs. Then it changed the law to say it would contribute “up to” 40 percent.

In reality, since 2010, it has contributed about 16 percent, according to a 2018 National Council on Disability report.

Add to that, special education budget gaps widened in California in recent years under a new school funding system adopted under Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012.

Through the “local control funding formula” the state gives schools blocks of money to spend as they see fit, based on the number of students enrolled. It gives extra money dedicated to specific types of students who need more resources, such as English language learners, low-income students, and homeless or foster youth.

But the state did not similarly earmark funds for students in special education. Instead it ties special education funding to a school district’s overall enrollment numbers, not how many students the district serves in special education.

As a result, special education costs have spilled over into districts’ general funds, consuming a greater portion of overall budgets each year.

The state also requires that school districts provide preschool services for students in special education, but the state provides no extra funding to schools for 3- and 4-year-olds.

The state allocates roughly $3.3 billion a year for special education, down from $3.8 billion in 2007.

“These are required services,” said Luis Ibarra, superintendent of the Escondido Union School District, “and a lot of them are dictated by the IEP. If it says you shall provide, you will provide. It’s just one of those priorities you have to take into account when you’re budgeting.”

School districts pay for roughly 60 percent of special education costs out of their own general pool of money, according to a 2016 Public Policy Institute of California report.

A San Diego Union-Tribune analysis of San Diego County districts shows some pay more up to three quarters of their special education expenses from general funds. Fallbrook Union High School District, for instance, paid for 76 percent of special education costs last school year, while San Diego Unified paid for 68 percent.

Out of the county’s 42 districts, at least 19 have paid most of their special education costs out of their own pocket.

“Our costs have nearly doubled for special education over the last five years, and that’s not sustainable,” said Deann Ragsdale, special education director for the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District and former special education director for San Diego Unified.

“We provide the services that children need regardless of how much funding there is,” Ragsdale said.

But it’s a struggle. Some school districts have reported consecutive years of deficit spending and some are dipping into reserves and cutting staff because of a variety of costs, including pension, personnel and special education.

The California Department of Education said at least five San Diego County school districts are at risk of not meeting their financial obligations in the next year or two.

An analysis done by CPA and state Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, last November noted that 41 of San Diego County’s school districts had negative balance sheets; the exception was Spencer Valley Elementary in Santa Ysabel. He attributed much of it to rising pension and personnel costs.

Sometimes there’s pushback against cutbacks.

Last month, after a series of teacher labor grievances and public meetings, San Diego Unified agreed to revise its plans to increase caseloads for some special education teachers. Instead it agreed to hire 26 more special education teachers next school year, to phase-in lower caseloads, and to pay teachers more who have high caseloads.

District officials at the time said they weren’t trying to cut back on special education services; they were trying to enhance them.

Warren said he believes that the expense of staffing the special education programs is the main reason costs are climbing. School districts often approve raises every year or every two years, he said, while school districts’ pension cost obligations also rise.

A tilting balance

In total, there were roughly 704,000 students with disabilities in California last school year, making up about 11 percent of K-12 students statewide. They include students with a wide range of issues, including learning disabilities such as dyslexia, other conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or physical disabilities affecting vision, hearing or mobility.

Students with learning disabilities are the largest category of special education, making up about 38 percent of all students with disabilities.

But the fastest growing category of disability was autism. Enrollment of students with that diagnosis jumped 700 percent since 2000, with 112,000 students making up 14 percent of students with disabilities in the last school year, state figures show.

Experts say students with autism have some of the most complex learning needs.

Many experts caution against viewing general education and special education as competing priorities. They argue that the underlying problem is deficient funding — for all school needs.

“I think that when you experience such deep underfunding, it kind of brings out the worst in us,” said Lindsay E. Jones, CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, in Washington, D.C.

“It pits kids against each other, and families,” she said. “Clearly investment is paramount.”

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