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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 difficulties with peers.

School counselors and nurses 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. Teachers do what they can, but sometimes more help is needed.

You might remember receiving help from a counselor or school nurse during your childhood, but few California public schools provide that kind of service anymore, a reality that the pandemic brought into sharp focus. In most schools, if there are counselors at all, a central role of the job is to point people in the right direction to get help from someone else, often externally.

Trained counselors are pretty scarce. In 2019, the ratio of students per counselor in this state averaged 626 to 1, but the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 to 1. (More data at Nationally comparable data for that year are not available yet, but a 2015 analysis suggests this ratio puts the state in the running for last in the nation.

And what about that school nurse? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a minimum of one full-time registered nurse in every school. However, in California, the ratio of students to nurses in 2019 was 2,410 to one. More than half of the school districts in California do not employ even one nurse.

Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities need help. In education lingo, the word for this kind of help is accomodations. Sometimes the level of help required can be provided by teachers, such as allowing a student more time to complete work. In other cases, the help required calls for more expertise. Here are two major laws you should know about:

Section 504

Named after a provision in the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, "section 504" is a civil rights law that prevents discrimination in access to education due to a disability. Who may be eligible for extra help? Examples include students with a physical or mental impairment that may interfere with a "major life activity" like reading, walking, concentrating, speaking, or breathing. Think asthma or an illness like arthritis. Even students that earn good grades may be eligible. More recently, there have been efforts by the U.S. Department of Education to strengthen section 504. In order to protect the rights of students under section 504, the U.S. Department of Education reached out to the public for any suggested amendments to the regulations.

Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA)

Commonly known as special education, the Federal IDEA law governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities nationally. A major feature of this law is the requirement to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for qualified students.

Each of these laws has separate eligibility requirements. A student who is not eligible for special education may be eligible for a 504 plan. (Yes, this is part of the reason why parents of students that need extra support sometimes become education policy nerds.) Check this summary that lays out the differences.

Early identification and support for struggling students is essential, but how does that actually happen? California has a chronic shortage of teachers with special education training. In practice, elementary school teachers in regular classrooms are responsible for spotting and helping children who need special help, frequently without the professional training and support they need. A child who is struggling may be referred for an evaluation to determine eligibility for special education or a 504 plan.

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, many parents don't follow up on teachers' recommendations to have their child professionally evaluated. In 2015, a State Task Force on Special Education highlighted these issues. It recommended:

  • Beefing up teacher support and preparation programs.
  • Expanding early learning so that all students, especially those with disabilities, have access to high-quality infant and toddler programs and preschools, including diagnostic and intervention services.

Parents of young children, and their teachers, can play an important role in helping to identify and address potential learning issues early if they know what to look for.

If your son or daughter needs special education services, it can be very helpful to keep good notes with things like contact information, notes from meetings with teachers, and report cards. For guidance about what good notes look like for a parent of a student with a disability or disorder, watch this video from

Student Challenges: Autism and Bullying

Students with autism face challenges at school that go beyond academics. For example, these students are disproportionately involved in bullying incidents — as the bully, 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 former diagnosis now subsumed within the autism spectrum.

Boys are about four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism, according to a 2014 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Students with autism are not automatically eligible for accommodations. Eligibility requires formal assessment by a psychologist, who can determine whether a student's autism adversely affects their education. If they are not eligible for special education services, however, they may be eligible for a 504 plan.

The number of students identified with more severe disabilities have almost doubled since 2000-01. According to a 2019 report by the California Legislative Analyst, this increase is due largely to a rise in autism, which affected about 1 in 600 students in 1997-98 compared to about 1 in 50 students in 2017-18. In addition, the CDC supports this finding through their 2000-2018 report of the increase in autism.

Student Challenges: Dyslexia

Reading is a core skill for learning, and students who have difficulty reading are at a great disadvantage in school. It can be difficult for teachers to discern the root cause when a student struggles with reading. Dyslexia is common; by some generous estimates, it affects as many as 15-20% of us, frequently undetected. Many students struggle without knowing why, or what to do about it.

Most states require schools to screen all students for risk of dyslexia, but (as of this review in early 2023) California is not among them. It is particularly challenging to spot dyslexia in students who are learning English. The California Department of Education provides resources such as the California Diagnostic Center and CALIReads. The California Dyslexia Guidelines includes a detailed explanation of dyslexia and how California's education system supports students. (It's a long document. Jump to page 81 for practical advice about things you can try at home.)

Source: California Legislative Office (LAO)

Addressing disabilities is not optional

These obligations are real and may not be ignored. In 2017 the US Supreme Court clarified in a unanimous decision that an IEP must be specially designed to meet the unique needs of children:

"A child’s IEP need not aim for grade-level advancement if that is not a reasonable prospect. But that child’s educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives."

Nationally, about 15% of students have an Individualized Education Program (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 15% of students have an IEP. California districts identify fewer special education students, about 13% of enrollment as of 2020, according to

In order to evaluate learning progress for all students, students with disabilities or learning differences are 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 is given a different test, the California Alternate Assessment (CAA). (See Lesson 9.3 for more.)

What about Gifted Students?

The special needs of gifted students are frequently overlooked. There is no special funding for gifted students in California, but some school districts set aside money to create programs or services for them. (Learn more about gifted students in the Ed100 blog.)

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 — students were deemed to have either them or not. With time and further studies into disabilities and disorders, these definitions and approaches have matured. 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 difference 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 has raised its profile.

Addressing Special Needs Takes Resources

The cost of providing special education services varies significantly among schools and districts. Nearly 800,000 students in California receive special education services — about one in every eight students.

According to 2019 estimates by the California Legislative Analyst Office (LAO), the average annual cost of educating a student with disabilities is almost triple the cost to educate a student without disabilities.

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

Federal and state funds specifically for special education don't fully cover the costs, and the portion of the cost of special education that is locally funded grew from 49 percent of the cost in 2007-08 to 61 percent in 2017-18. This unreimbursed portion is sometimes insensitively called encroachment or encumbrance, terms that irritate families whose children have special needs.

The state budget for 2022-23 mitigated this issue somewhat, adding about $150 per student for special education.

Special needs are funded as a block, not per student

The state funding model (LCFF) doesn't include special education.

Money is allocated to school districts based on the total number of children attending, regardless of students' disability status. This policy creates a bittersweet problem for schools that do a great job of educating students with disabilities. If their success becomes well known, eventually they will attract more families that want a great program for their kids. A district can become a victim of its own success.

The state funding model doesn't vary state or federal money in response to individual learning needs: it assumes that students with special needs are evenly distributed among the general population across the state. The logic of this policy is to avoid creating incentives to label kids, but it’s a flawed assumption with an unequal impact. There are patterns in which students are evaluated for disabilities: Many students from marginalized groups do not receive the resources they are eligible for.

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 disability funding through a regional network more than 130 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.

Will Special Education Finance Be Overhauled?

SELPAs receive widely varying funding per student. The reasons for this variation are grounded in historic practices, and calls for change have been growing louder with time. In 2015, a much-anticipated task force recommended a major overhaul of the special education system, including specific actions to equalize funding and address the shortcomings of the SELPA system. It also called for additional funding.

The task force findings led to additional research; in 2018 analysis of California's special education system was included as part of the Getting Down to Facts II group of studies. In 2019 a group of policy researchers further expanded the scope of inquiry with a set of 13 studies that collectively take a broader view. Changes to the SELPA system are necessary, they conclude, but not sufficient. In particular, the researchers highlight the need for better data, improved teacher training, and interagency collaboration with child-serving systems beyond schools.

In his proposal for the 2020-21 budget, Governor Newsom called for an increase in base funding, funding for dyslexia research, teacher training, and investments in services for preschool-age children with disabilities. The pandemic of 2020 created tremendous challenges for the mental health of students, educators and parents. Responding to these pressures, the booming budget of 2021-22 increased funding for districts to train and hire special education teachers. Funding also increased for counseling and psychiatric services.

In 2021, Wested updated its research in this area. For current developments in special education policy, follow the topic on EdSource.

Help for Parents

When children have special needs, families struggle to figure out the financial implications of supporting them. If they can, some families hire consultants to help them navigate the system. The Simple Dollar, which focuses on family financial planning, offers some free advice.

Updated September 2017, October 2017, March 2018, April 2018, September 2018, October 2018, April 2019, September 2019, October 2019, February 2020, August 2021, July 2022, Feb 2023.


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 - Founder February 24, 2023 at 3:06 pm
The state Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) reviewed the pros and cons of the state's "census-based" approach to funding for special education in a report for the legislature at the end of 2021. The conclusion, in essence: "The strengths of the census-based model continue to apply today, as does its inability to provide more funding for significantly higher costs."
user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 9, 2023 at 4:00 pm
A controversial report on inclusive practices finds that:
One size does not fit all – inconsistent effects of inclusion on learning and psychosocial adjustment of children with special needs. Many disability advocates disagree .

user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 4, 2022 at 12:55 pm
Policy changes in special education funding in the state 2022-23 budget.

The special education base funding now calculated at the local level, rather than the SELPA level.

Increased ($14 million on going) and consolidated extraordinary cost pools.

Beginning in 2023-24, allocating Educationally Related Mental Health Services funding directly to local educational agencies rather than to SELPAs.

Developing addition to Local Control and Accountability Plan to support inclusive planning and promote cohesion between special education and general education planning.

Focusing a special education IEP best practices, and establishing an expert panel to continue the work of creating a model IEP template.

Establishing a pathway to a diploma for students who take the California Alternate Assessment and providing resources to identify alternative coursework options for students with disabilities to demonstrate completion of the state graduation requirements.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 4, 2022 at 1:01 pm
More special education initiatives $2 million one-time Proposition 98 General Fund to create resources for inclusionary practices for families and communities. $2 million ongoing to establish a special education resource lead to support families of pupils with disabilities and provide capacity building, training, and technical assistance on family support for families of pupils with disabilities, and conflict prevention and alternate dispute resolution in special education.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 14, 2022 at 12:47 pm
Overview of Special Education Funding Models

December 17, 2021 - This brief provides background on the state’s current funding allocation formula for special education, describes funding formulas used in other states, establishes a framework for evaluating these formulas, and offers some issues for the Legislature to consider.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 5, 2022 at 3:26 pm
Unequal & Increasingly Unfair: How Federal Policy Creates Disparities in Special Education Funding Annenberg/Brown University

Important findings that " on average, states with proportionally larger populations of children and children living in poverty, children identified for special education, and non-White and Black children receive fewer federal dollars, both per pupil and per student receiving special education.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 14, 2022 at 1:56 pm
Efforts to Strengthen section 504
user avatar
Sonya Hendren July 11, 2020 at 1:23 pm
When we read this lesson in our school Ed100 "book club," we were surprised to hear that so many school districts don't have nurses! We thought schools without their own nurses just shared them.
user avatar
afrinier February 16, 2020 at 11:35 am
This is an excellent summary and full of great links.
user avatar
DerekandRebeccasDad November 21, 2019 at 10:53 pm
This was a good place to start concerning gathering information and resources for looking into further.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh October 25, 2019 at 9:24 pm
This article is sorely missing a section about full inclusion. The concept of putting a child with special needs into a General Ed classroom is incredibly confusing to most of the public. That is where best practices for full inclusion come in. I would refer anyone to the CHIME program, which is running both at CSUN, where there is an early education program, and in Woodland Hills, where there is an elementary and middle school charter. Students with disabilities and typical students learn better when they are in the classroom together. But to make this happen, special education teachers and mainstream teachers must work together.
user avatar
Jeff Camp January 6, 2020 at 11:27 pm
Thanks, Jamie -- in response to your comment we added this post to our blog:
user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 22, 2021 at 9:14 pm
I appreciate this comment and addition. Way to take feedback Ed100 team.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 28, 2018 at 9:54 am
The Learning Policy Institute takes a close look at the "Special Education Teacher Crisis: Who’s Teaching Our Most Vulnerable Students?"

Read the Ed100 is brief

user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 3, 2018 at 5:05 pm
Want to look at the history of special education funding as it has moved from VERY complicated to less complicated, check this report from the Legislative Analyst.

History of Special Education Funding
user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 14, 2018 at 10:45 am
The Legislative Analyst's Office: A look at early intervention

"California currently provides early intervention services to more than 40,000 infants and toddlers with special needs. California’s system for serving these infants and toddlers involves three programs operated by two types of local agencies—schools and regional centers. Some parts of this system date back more than 35 years. During this time, the state has not regularly, or even periodically, evaluated this system. We undertook a comprehensive review and found California's bifurcated system results in notable service delays.

Read the Report:

Evaluating California's System for Serving Infants and Toddlers With Special Needs
user avatar
Kenny May 9, 2018 at 11:33 am
Intake by a Regional Center is horrifically long. We waited over 9 months to receive the decision that our intellectually disabled child with an IEP, who had qualified for services as an infant, was once again qualified to receive services as a teen. Why a 9-month waiting period is acceptable is beyond me.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar September 19, 2017 at 11:43 am
California has new Dyslexia Guidelines. These will help general education teachers, special education teachers, and parents in identifying, assessing, and supporting students with dyslexia. Here is the link:
(Note: the lesson was updated with this information)
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
David Siegrist1 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
Mamabear 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!!
user avatar
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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