The Future of Education: The Cost of Special Education

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(Host) In the last 10 years, Vermont’s expenditures for special education programs more than doubled.

From 1995 to 2005, overall spending increased a little more than $100 million. In 1995, local, state and federal spending for special education was roughly $85 million. Ten years later, costs had increased to almost $200 million.

What’s driving up the costs of special education… and is there a way to control them?

VPR’s Lynne McCrea went to one Addison County school district to find out.

(Sounds of student with educator)

(McCrea) As of last year, Addison Central Supervisory Union had eight students with autism in its schools. Autism is a disorder that affects a child’s ability to communicate and interact, to varying degrees. Vicki Wells is the director of special education for ACSU. She says the two students we’re visiting are an example of the range of autism, where one is far more verbal than the other.

(Sounds of another student)
(Wells) “This is the student who’s less verbal, you can see he’s using pictures to communicate.”

(McCrea) The number of kids diagnosed with autism is on the rise in Vermont, as it is nationally. While the numbers are still a very small percentage of all students with disabilities, the rate at which autism is growing is a concern.

(Edwards) “I do think we’re seeing an increased number of students with more intensive needs.”

(McCrea) Karin Edwards is head of Special Education for the state. She says students with more intensive needs require more involved services.

(Edwards) “I think that schools are being asked to do things that people in schools weren’t asked to do 20 years ago because of the intensity of the needs of some of the students.”

(McCrea) The two students with autism at this Addison County elementary school are in highly individualized programs. At times, they’re involved in school activities, like gym class. Each one also has their own behavioral interventionist – a professional with an expertise in autism who the school contracts from a local mental health agency.

The more verbal student also works with the school’s para-professional on some specific skills.
Special Educator Vicki Wells:

(Wells) “This is a student whose needs have changed. With the school based autism program, she has been able to not only be part of the school community, but also has gained an incredible amount of skills.”

(McCrea) Since 2000, ACSU’s Special Education expenditures have risen by about a million dollars. Superintendent Lee Sease attributes much of that rise to an increasing number of kids who are identified early on as lacking in basic skills, such as reading. He says that in the past, kids who didn’t get building block’ skills still moved on. Eventually, they got lost, and either struggled through school or dropped out.

(Sease) “Now, what we are doing better- or differently, is we are probing on a regular basis- those building block skills to find out who has them and who doesn’t from the get go.”

(Sounds of first graders)

(McCrea) This first grade reading class is an example of the range of skills among students. Christina Johnston is the principal at Weybridge Elementary School. She says most kids learn to read easily, seemingly through osmosis. But a portion will struggle, and some need very specific, individualized help from well trained teachers.

(Johnston) “The phrase that I still enjoy even though it’s corny, is that teaching reading IS rocket science’.”

(McCrea) The effort and expertise that’s involved in reaching students at every level comes with a price tag. But educators like Lee Sease believe that, ultimately, there is a savings.

(Sease) “If we do a better job of instructing those basic building blocks to reading, and kids become quality readers, it will save us resources. And the resources I’m talking about, money being one, and teaching time another. But the most important resource is – we have a child who can read. And that’s a valuable resource.”

(McCrea) Vermont’s head of special education, Karin Edwards, says the state is looking for more cost effective ways to provide special education services. But she doesn’t want Vermont to lose sight of its accomplishments.

(Edwards) “In many ways Vermont is a leader in the nation in the ways we serve students in special education. We have very high graduation rates, very low dropout rates. There’s just a lot that’s done well here.”

(McCrea) Karin Edwards says that among the ideas for cost-savings, the state is looking into establishing regional autism centers, and creating other collaborative special education programs.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Lynne McCrea

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