Special Ed Students Could Bankrupt School Districts

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At least according to a television station in San Francisco, California. In Special ed students could bankrupt districts, Lyanne Melendez lays out a simple thesis:

The budget problems facing schools across California are getting even worse. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of special education students in recent years, and the added cost of teaching them could bankrupt some school districts.


Starting with a bad premise, the story is bound to come to a bad conclusion. First, there are no “added costs” to teaching special education students. There are costs to educating students. We as a country decided, rightfully so, that one can not deny a student an education, because doing so would cost more than the average.

We often hear how special education budgets “encroach” on the general education budgets. That is a false idea. Special Education students are students. General funds money spent on Special Education students is appropriate.

The rest of the piece by Lyanne Melendez is a classic example of scapegoating. Sorry to put it so bluntly, but that is my take.

Scapegoat (noun): a person or group made to bear the blame for others or to suffer in their place.

Why do I say this? Let’s look at one of the examples given in the story, Gilroy Unified School District. Google Maps puts Gilroy 80 miles south of San Francisco. Not to pick on Gilroy, but the idea that Special Education is bankrupting them doesn’t hold water.

Gilroy Unified School District is one of those districts that is struggling to cover the costs of educating special needs students.


“In 2002, our unfunded special ed costs were about $170,000, this school year it’s $3,200,000,” district spokesperson Deborah Toups said.

First, this irks me. There is no “unfunded” Special Education costs. The schools may not be reimbursed specifically for all special education costs, but they aren’t supposed to be. Yes, there was a commitment by the federal government to pay 40% of the costs (this is a sore point for me), but that doesn’t mean that local communities shouldn’t be funding whatever the Federal government doesn’t pay. Special education students are a part of the student population. It is the responsibility of the people to educate all students.

Let’s check some simple numbers. In the past 8 years, the budget for Gilroy Unified has been going down and the enrollment has been going up.

The website for the district has a number of documents relating to the budget. Here is the 2010-2011 budget book and here is a table of the budget and projected budgets (click it to enlarge):

The total budget is $82M this year. $3M for special education would be a big chunk of that budget. But, is that the whole story? I couldn’t find the 2002 budget numbers, but in 2005, the budget for Gilroy Unified was $119M .

So, the budget is down $37M in 5 years. Could this, perhaps, be part of the financial problem for Gilroy Unified?

How about student population? The number of special ed kids has actually dropped. Gilroy had 882 special ed students in the 2009-10 school year and 923 2002-03 school year.

Note that overall student enrollment went up from 9,630 students in 2002/03 to to 11,116 in 2009/10. So, total student enrollment is going up, revenues are down.

Also, if I did my math correctly, that means that Gilroy Unified saw a drop in the percentage of Special Education students from 9.2% to 8.3%.

If you are interested in some more detail: from 2002 to 2009, the number of students in the “autism” special education category went up from 10 to 63. At the same time, students in the “mental retardation” category went down from 60 to 36. These numbers were dwarfed by the big drop in the number of children in the “specific learning disability” category (from 443 to 218).

Back to the budget. Here is a quote from the budget book:

The 2010-11 Revised State Budget defers $12.6 billion in revenue limit funding for K-12 education, including $5 billion in payments which are being postponed from one fiscal year to the next. The District will not receive approximately 25% of the State portion of Prop. 98 Revenue Limit funding for 2010-11 until the following year (July & August 2011). These cash deferrals are expected to be ongoing.


Yes, the State Government, in an effort to balance its own budget, isn’t paying school districts on time all the money they are committed to.

When I looked for more information on Proposition 98 funding, I found this paragraph:

The Governor has stated that education has been “protected” in his proposed budget. It is important to note that “protected” does not mean that school districts will be spared further reductions. The District’s largest source of revenue, Prop. 98 Revenue Limit, has a funding deficit of 18.355%. In addition the Governor’s Proposed budget “fully funds” the cost of living allowance (COLA) at a negative 0.39% and adds an ongoing “targeted” funding reduction of 3.85% of school districts base revenue limit. The chart below shows the dollar amount per Average Daily Attendance (ADA) the District is entitled to under current funding formulas and the estimated funded amount.


So, the State is assuming that the cost of living is going down? Funding from Prop. 98 sources is down.

Another document that came up on the Gilroy Unified website for the search “budget” was Staff Letter re: 2010/2011 Budget. Here’s the opening paragraph:

The Governor released the proposed 2010-11 State Budget last week. Prior to its release, we were planning for budget reductions in the $3-4 million range. Unfortunately, the Governor’s budget significantly reduced funding for public schools and the amount we now need to cut is in the $6.3 million range – which is 11.4% of our unrestricted general fund budget. This unprecedented level of cuts follows two years of significant reductions in revenue from the State.


So, the State government “defers” paying the district, and “protects” education by reducing the payment they do make. How do we get from that to “special education students are bankrupting the district”?

Yes, California is having hard times. Yes, many special education students cost much more to educate than the average student. But, please, do we have to scapegoat these students with the label that they are “bankrupting” districts?