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How much does it cost to educate a student with special needs? Nobody knows.

Sep 15, 2016

Figuring out all the different pots of money that go into paying for special education is complicated, but you know what’s even more complicated? Figuring out how much special education in Michigan actually costs. And if we don't know that, we don't know whether we're spending too much or too little on special ed. 

It’s so complicated even the people who specialize in school finance can’t figure it out.

The Michigan Legislature last year paid $399,000 to the Colorado-based firm Augenblick Palaich & Associates (APA) to figure out how much an adequate education costs in Michigan, and they came back with an amount: $8,667 per student plus extra for at-risk students and English-language learners.

But there was one glaring omission in the report: the cost of special education.

According to the report, “there was difficulty ensuring that the study team could account for all district expenditures for special education students.”

In other words, APA couldn’t figure out how much money is adequate for students with special needs because APA couldn’t figure out how much districts actually spend on students with special needs. 

From the report:

The study team recommends creating a system that better tracks special education expenditures from all sources. The report did not dig deeply into current special education expenditures by district, since accounting for these expenditures is complex. As mentioned in the data collection section, APA worked with Michigan Department of Education to identify the special education expenditures for each district. APA examined multiple sources and created different iterations of figures. After receiving feedback from the survey, it was clear to the study team that not all of the expenditure categories in special education had been identified.

So to recap: 

  • We know how much the state spends on special education in Michigan ($973 million plus an additional $1.1 million to implement Special Education Task Force Reforms)
  • We know how much the federal government spends on special education in Michigan ($441 million)
  • We don’t know what it actually costs to educate Michigan students with special needs.

Part of that has to do with how we account for special ed expenses.

In Michigan, we use a reimbursement model, which most states have migrated away from. Districts have to tally up all their special education expenses, fill out a special form, give it to the state, and the state turns around and reimburses 28% of those expenses.

Sounds easy enough. But wait, there's more. 

See, districts can't tally up everything that goes toward special education.

Kim Cosgrove, Holt Public Schools finance director, says Michigan “assumes that if you give chairs to a regular education student, that you are obligated to give chairs to the special education student too" and can't count that chair, say, as a special education expense.

Instead the majority of special ed expenses, she says, are made up of “human expenses” – teachers, paraprofessionals, therapists.

(Here's the official state list of what does and does not count as a special education expense.)

And Michael Griffith says even those “human expenses” are hard to account for. Griffith is a school finance expert with the non-profit Education Commission of the States.

“Let’s say you have a teacher, he or she is in a classroom and there are three special ed kids there. How do you count that teacher’s salary? Do you count it just as three kids in a classroom of, say, 25? Or do you talk about the extra time that that teacher spends on those special ed kids? Do you talk about the time that he or she might spend after school or after class with those kids as a cost?”

He says, broadly speaking and not about Michigan per se, different districts account for teacher time differently, so you can have two districts that provide relatively similar special education services but come up with two different dollar amounts in terms of what they spend because of how they account for  it.

And Michigan isn’t alone in terms of not having a clear picture on the actual costs of special education.

The U.S. Department of Education 16 years ago tried to determine how much it costs at a national level to educate a student with special needs. The Special Education Expenditure Project (SEEP) was funded by the federal government and used 1999-2000 data, and here’s how Michael Griffith sums it up:

“The most recent attempt to account for actual special education expenditures ... found that average expenditures for a general education student that year was $6,556 compared to $12,474 for students with disabilities.”

So that's our best estimate, he says, and it's 16 years old. 

*This post was last updated on September 19 at 9:41 a.m.