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Lesson 2.7

Special Needs:
Why Not Teach All Kids Alike?

It costs more to educate kids with special needs. How much more?

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Many issues can interfere with a child’s learning, from learning disabilities to mental and physical health issues to family tragedies to peer effects.

School counselors are rare today

Many of these challenges can only be addressed effectively on an individual basis. This kind of help requires expertise, patience and sensitivity, and that's where counselors come in.

Or used to, at any rate. You might remember receiving help from a counselor in your school during your own childhood. If so, you should probably file the memory under "how it was." Few California public schools provide that kind of counseling anymore. California usually ranks at or near the bottom among the states in the ratio of counselors to students. In 2013, the California Department of Education reported “The ratio of students per counselor in this state averages 945 to 1, compared to the national average of 477 to 1, ranking California last in the nation.”

Counselors in California schools are far outnumbered by students with acute needs.

Special Needs fall on a spectrum

Students with special needs such as severe autism face challenges at school that go beyond academics. For example, these students are disproportionately involved in bullying incidents, either as the bully or as the victim, or both. A set of studies by the Interactive Autism Network in March 2012 suggests that this issue is particularly important for students with Asperger's syndrome. A 2008 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that about one in 50 boys and about one in 250 girls has a form of autism, a ratio that has been steadily increasing.

The number of students identified with autism enrolled in California public schools in districts has increased steadily.    Source:  CSBA Report: California’s Challenge: Adequately Funding Education in the 21st Century The number of students identified with autism enrolled in California public schools in districts has increased steadily.
Source: CSBA Report: California’s Challenge: Adequately Funding Education in the 21st Century
About one in 50 boys and about one in 250 girls has a form of autism, a ratio that has been steadily increasing.

Elementary school teachers are increasingly responsible for spotting children who are struggling and for addressing learning differences, frequently without the professional training and support they need. Parents with young children can help identify and address potential learning issues early, if they know what to look for.

Source: LAO

Federal law (IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) requires public schools to provide special education services to students with disabilities that adversely affect their education. A common feature of the required services is an Individual Education Plan (IEP), which specifies the district’s obligations [PDF] to the student. In 2017 the US Supreme Court clarified in a unanimous decision that instruction must be specially designed to meet the unique needs of children through an individualized education program, and that in most cases a student's progress should be measured by whether they are able to keep up with their non-disabled peers.

Nationally, about 13.1% of students have an Individual Education Plan (IEP). California identifies fewer.

Different states have different processes to guide how a district identifies a student as having special needs, and the percentage of students identified varies accordingly. Nationally, about 13.1% of students have an Individual Education Plan (IEP). California districts identify fewer Special Education students, about 10% of enrollment.

In order to evaluate learning progress for all students, students with special needs have been included in annual testing. Students can be given extra time or other "accommodations" (such as having the test read to them) in order to enable them to participate in and complete the test. A small fraction of disabled students are given a different test, the California Alternate Assessment (CAA). (The CAA replaced the California Modified Assessment (CMA) in 2016. See Lesson 9.3 for more.)

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

In the early decades of federal funding for special education, students were designated as having "special needs" in a rather binary way, usually separating special students from "normal" ones. But time and science have matured the definitions. Increasingly, teachers and school leaders have concluded that everyone learns a little differently. For some, learning a melody is easy, but mastering a math concept is hard. For some, math is easy but names are hard to remember. Increasingly teachers are using the term "learning differences" rather than "disability" to discuss how students learn.

Great teachers learn to present concepts in flexible ways so that they engage all of their students, get them involved in their own learning, and permit them to show their understanding in different ways. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) mentions this approach under the label Universal Design for Learning (UDL). ESSA did not attach new funds or incentives to the UDL approach, but its use of the term may raise its profile.

Addressing Special Needs Takes Resources

The cost of providing special education services varies significantly among schools and districts. According to the California Legislative Analyst, the average annual cost of educating a student with disabilities is more than double that for a mainstream student — approximately $22,300 compared to $9,600 in 2011. (Most students require less severe, less costly services, but some students require intensive interventions that cost notably more.)

From the Legislative Analyst's Office, 2013 From the Legislative Analyst's Office, 2013

Between 2005 and 2011, a combination of increasing special education costs and relatively flat state and federal special education funding meant local budgets had to cover an increasing share of these costs. 

Federal and state funds specifically for special education don't fully cover the costs. Local funds contribute, too.

In the 2010-11 school year, 39% of special ed expenditures were carried locally, not reimbursed by federal or state funds. (This unreimbursed portion is sometimes insensitively called "encroachment" or "encumbrance," terms that irritate families whose children have special needs.)

Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) report Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) report "Overview of Special Education in California" figure 8.

Special needs are funded as a block, not per student

The state funding model (LCFF) omits special education. Implicitly, it assumes that students with special needs are evenly distributed among the general population across the state.

School districts with great programs for kids with special needs face a bittersweet problem. If their success becomes well known, eventually they will attract more families that want a great program for their kids. The state school finance system does NOT provide extra money to districts based on the number of children with special needs, so a district can become a victim of its own success. (Money is allocated based on the total number of children attending, regardless of students' disability status.) The state funding model doesn't direct state or federal money according to individual learning needs: it assumes that students with special needs are evenly distributed among the general population across the state. Some of the logic behind this policy is that if the state awarded additional dollars for kids labelled as having special needs, districts would respond by labeling more kids.

To help mitigate these financial impacts, and also to create some economies of scale related to uncommon and high-cost disabilities - such as blindness - the state distributes special education funding through a regional network of 127 Special Education Local Planning Areas (SELPAs). State law requires that every school district, county office of education, and charter school belong to a SELPA. Most of the state's largest school districts have their own SELPA; smaller districts join together and negotiate the use of funds for students. About three-quarters of special education funding is allocated to SELPAs according to a "census-based" formula established in 1998-99 under AB602.

Special education rules and accounting are enormously complex, and experts disagree about their interpretation. Litigation has been an important driver of special education policy and special education issues can have big impacts on school districts, including impacts that are sometimes not very obvious.


School districts receive federal and state funds for special education. Do these funds cover the full cost?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp March 23, 2017 at 10:13 am
In March, 2017 the US Supreme Court clarified (in a unanimous decision) that schools must provide instruction that is "'specially designed' to meet a child's 'unique needs' through an '[i]ndividualized education program.'" This ruling received elevated coverage because it tartly overturned a decision written by SCOTUS candidate Gorsuch, who had ruled that schools had only a small obligation to provide something more than nothing to support students with special needs.
user avatar
April 30, 2017 at 12:31 pm
Judge Gorsuch's decision was based on the law as written. He had no choice. Judges don't make laws!
user avatar
Jeff Camp November 29, 2016 at 9:50 pm
There is significant discussion underway about how Special education is financed in California. In November 2016 an analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) echoed many of the 2015 recommendations of the Statewide Special Education Task Force.
As usual, EdSource boils it down: Under the recommendation, "State money for special education would be folded into the Local Control Funding Formula, completing [Governor] Brown’s goal of creating a unified funding system for all children."

Here's more about it:

PPIC report:
Task Force recommendations:
EdSource summary:
user avatar
Albert Stroberg May 1, 2016 at 6:12 pm
What is the evidence that increased spending & programs for Special Ed actually makes a difference? Are the recipients identifiably better off? Are we making a difference in the outcome or just making ourselves feel better?
There may be a subset which really do improve & perhaps some who get nothing out of it. How do we identify those?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 28, 2016 at 11:39 am
Special ed enrollment in America was on a long-term decline until about 2012, when the trend reversed, both in percentage and absolute terms. Special ed is expanding, but no explanation seems well-supported by data. (via Christina Samuels, EdWeek)
user avatar
kellysakir March 7, 2016 at 1:49 pm
This is an area that needs legislative attention. IT is ABSOLUTELY UNFAIR and UNEQUITABLE for local districts to get the same amount of tax dollars for special need students as for those that are not. How can that possibly insure an equal education for all? In addition, it leads to even more "stigma" to be attached to those with special needs in that some are bound to claim that the other children are being short-changed by virtue of more money being spent to assist a special needs child. This should NOT be the case. With ongoing efforts to allow those with special needs to be "mainstreamed" it is imperative that any schools with such children as students be given the additional financial and instructional resources to do so properly without having to sacrifice any existing programs to make up for any financial shortfalls.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar November 14, 2015 at 10:58 am
With dyslexia identified as the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties, two items parents should know about:

1. Research:
Identifying children with dyslexia as early as first grade could narrow or even close the achievement gap with typical readers, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, and Yale University.

2. Dyslexia California Law 2015:
AB 1369 requires the superintendent of public instruction to develop program guidelines for dyslexia. These will describe the characteristics typical of students with dyslexia and outline strategies to address them. They are expected to include information to assist educators in distinguishing between characteristics of dyslexia and characteristics of normal growth and development.
user avatar
geecookie2011 April 18, 2015 at 7:53 am
I feel that they need to be more emphasis and in depth about what it looks like for free education for “ALL” children with disability. I find in most schools, all one school focus is to teach the children how to be more silent so that they don’t put fear in those with no disability and how to be more they could Do at home,like cook and etc., then truly get education I’m talking about reading, writing and math from a learning institution. To me what they should teach our Children while they are school. They can learn most of that at home. That at home basic skills. That’s why we have agencies such as the Regional Centers and other supportive agencies that provide services for out-of-school surroundings but when a child is in school they should be doing exactly like other students that we sent to school to do however that has been modified to the individual needs. What dose look like..well either mainstream the Children with a lot of resources or have them in class with with that same individual resources that is being provided to that students to be a true success to learn to read & ect. and do arithmetics. So that “”ALL” students can be a true success as a graduate student with a diploma and can go on to college maybe a junior college first and then really truly have a successful career that will help not only that child become an adult but also our economics.
I speak and come from a child who this is his desire to do to be part of and to go to school to truly and really learn. Notbe and feel limited.
Ms Helenmarie “Cookie” a mother of 4 with child living with DS T21 and other complications and a Grandmother of 4
user avatar
amosmickey April 14, 2015 at 12:03 pm
We have a fabulous program at my daughter's school addressing this issue. It is called the ITALC program and we have had a lot of success providing much needed services to students with various disabilities and various needs. However, that program is threatened because the school district wants to de-centralize the program and I really don't understand that. Our school has done an amazing job integrating services that kids needs (all in one place) as well as integrating them into the classes with other students and it has worked well for a long time... this decision just baffles our school community!
user avatar
Veli Waller April 3, 2015 at 9:36 pm
With such high student:counselor ratios, counselors do not end up counseling students - at the high school most of their time is spent on scheduling. The way the counselors job is currently structured is not effective.
user avatar
lb2vta March 19, 2015 at 5:19 pm
Evidence Based Literacy Instruction (EBLI) is a fabulous way to teach people how to read. It works! My daughter is learning disabled and we saw immediate results using the iPad app. Check out or the EBLI Facebook page.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar - Ed100 March 12, 2015 at 12:11 pm
California is taking a closer look at how it delivers services to children with special needs. A March 2015 task force report, One System: Reforming Education to Serve all Students, calls for better and more early intervention as well as a unified coordinated system. And yes...better financing.
The report recommends changes to seven parts of the educational system:
• Early Learning
• Evidence based schools and classroom practices
• Educator participation and professional learning
• Assessment
• Accountability
• Family and Student Engagement
• Special Education Financing
For more information, go to:
user avatar
Brandi Galasso March 5, 2015 at 7:31 am
Our school is failing even with counselor because he's causing even bigger bullying problems
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 10:18 am
My school district is very diligent about following the laws in regards to special needs kids (our son with autism). However, it sometimes seems as if they are doing it just to be in compliance, not because they have his best interest in mind. Our IEP team is so stretched with all of their other responsibilities it is nearly impossible to communicate with them. I feel so sorry that they can't maintain focus on the kids with special needs, and it is only because I have an education degree that I can help him. I feel empathy for those less educated individuals who aren't aware of their rights or what they should ask for when it comes to their kids. Many parents are just not aware that their student is lacking resources or interventions. As a former teacher, my hands were always tied when it came to helping parents understand that their child was different. I was never allowed to say anything or even hint that their child may need to be evaluated. According to my district, I would have been "offering" to pay for their medical evaluations. On the other hand, the parents expected me to tell them what was wrong. My school provides awesome support services however I know what I am entitled to receive and fight for it (extra testing time, extended assignment due dates, etc.). Although we rarely need it, the safeguards are in place when we do. That provides us with some comfort when our son us struggling to grasp a concept.
RE bullying and counselors - I feel our school is great at addressing both. HOWEVER - that said, we only have 600 kids at our school. Not 4000 like the other public school we could have chosen. These high school numbers are insane and I would have home schooled if putting our son in a school with 4000 kids was my only option.
user avatar
Sherry Schnell January 22, 2015 at 9:52 am
When we talk about special needs and students being on a spectrum, we should also talk about students at the other end of the spectrum - i.e. students who are advanced and capable of studying deeper or more complex material than their peers. These advanced students also require differentiated teaching, resources and funding to reach their full potential.
user avatar
eastwestpa February 4, 2015 at 12:53 pm
totally agree!!
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jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 10:22 am
You are completely right. It takes a lot of extra work to differentiate and a lot of kids get left behind because they aren't appropriately challenged. It is very difficult as a teacher to reach the lowest of the low and the highest of the high, and every child in between. As a 10 year teacher this was my most difficult challenge. Add to that discipline, mandatory meetings, recess and lunch duties, parent communication, and so on. Our son is autistic and it is a full time job just helping him with self esteem and feeling like he fits in to life. His intelligence is never an issue but he is genuinely bored with certain classes, yet struggles in others.
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