We Are Not Sparta: The Real, Justified Costs of Educating Kids With Special Needs

I am posting this with permission from my smart, tenacious, Italian-from-Italy friend Lea. Our sons went to kindergarten together.

Special Needs Children and Public Education
by Lea Cuniberti-Duran

Raising and educating children with special needs is expensive. That's just a fact.

I have attended many school district budget meetings in which officials blurted to their audience, "We cannot pay for XYZ because of our financial responsibility toward children with special needs: to educate one special needs student can cost the district $100,000 a year." I also hear about how the district has "an unfunded mandate to educate children with special needs, and how this results into an encroachment to the general fund."

As one can imagine this argument is not always well received by parents of typical kids who want a great education for their children, and are lead to believe that "all those quirky kids" are in the way. It is easy to believe the encroachment argument: how can one argue with the fact that our district has to transfer $7M from general fund to the special education department?

The school district's argument has been so effective that a good friend recently confronted my husband and me. She said she couldn't see why the district had to spend so much money to educate special need children. She resented spending $100,000 for a child who will may never be a fully contributing member of our society. Why not spend that money toward the education of all the other children, those who will be able to contribute, go to university, and have a career?

Don’t Be Fooled By the Numbers
Districts use children with special needs the way a magician uses props: as a distraction, a way to divert attention from schools underperforming because of problems that have nothing to do with special needs. Just look at the numbers: Redwood City School District spends about $10,000 per student (according to the latest data released by the district). RCSD is rated a 5 out of 10 based on State and Federal tests results for the school year 2008-09

If we look at districts around the Bay Area that, like Redwood City, are revenue-limit (meaning, they rely heavily on state funding), have the same proportion of students with special needs, YET are rated higher by GreatSchools.net; we will see that these districts spend less money per student. From this we can infer that special needs students are not the reason why school districts underperform:
  • Cabrillo Unified (Half Moon Bay)
  • Rated 7 out of 10
  • Spending per pupil: $7,477
  • San Mateo-Foster City
  • Rated 7 out of 10
  • Spending per pupil: $7,917
  • Mountain View
  • Rated 7 out of 10
  • Spending per pupil: $8,433
  • San Francisco
  • Rated 7 out of 10
  • Spending per pupil: $8,357
  • Millbrae
  • Rated 8 out of 10
  • Spending per pupil: $7,203
  • Novato
  • Rated 8 out of 10
  • Spending per pupil: $7,283
  • Walnut Creek
  • Rated 10 out of 10
  • Spending per pupil: $7,281

A Good Investment
Allowing people with disabilities to reach their full potential is a good investment. With appropriate services and support, people with disabilities can lead full and productive lives. And helping those who may never be fully independent reach their full potential costs taxpayers less than funding 24/7 assistance for the rest of their lives.

We, as society, need to move away from thinking that people with a mental or physical disability cannot be contributing members of society. Just look around in your daily life, and notice some examples of people who have gone and beyond those simple expectations: my children’s occupational therapist who is missing an arm, or a tax accountant who happen to be dyslexic, or one of my personal heroes, Dr. Temple Grandin, PhD, who is a leading expert in livestock management as well as an advocate for the autism community.

Work programs can specialize in employing individuals in areas where they excel, like complex but repetitive tasks that a neurotypical person cannot perform with consistent precision. I was told of a woman with Down syndrome whose job is to prepare all the instruments for the surgeons in a mid-west hospital. Educating and teaching skills to a person with a disability may require extra resources, but it leads to more independence – so it’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s the least expensive approach.

We Are Not Sparta
We, as society, value life, and have laws to protect it. We also value diversity. Long gone is the time of Sparta when people with differences were thrown off a cliff. But in the not-so-distant past, American children with disabilities were taken away from their families and put in institutions, where they were often left in very desperate conditions: with minimal food, clothing and shelter and terrible unhygienic conditions. In 1967, for example, state institutions were homes for almost 200,000 persons with significant disabilities. Some of these institutes still exist, like the NAPA State Hospital outside Sacramento, California which has been investigate by the State as recently as 2005 for abuses and infractions against patients.

The birth of IDEA
“In the 1950s and 1960s, the Federal government, with the strong support and advocacy of family associations, such as The ARC, began to develop and validate practices for children with disabilities and their families. These practices, in turn, laid the foundation for implementing effective programs and services of early intervention and special education in states and localities across the country.” (From the US Department of Education)

This lead to the creation of IDEA (Individual with Disabilities Educational Act), which gives children with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate public education, in the least restrictive environment, with accommodations, modifications and support so that children can access their education. This law benefits ALL children with an IEP, no matter how few services he or she is receiving.

What Has IDEA Accomplished?
A few examples from the US Dept of Education:
  • The majority of children with disabilities are now being educated in their neighborhood schools in regular classrooms with their non-disabled peers.
  • High school graduation rates and employment rates among youth with disabilities have increased dramatically. For example, graduation rates increased 14 percent from 1984 to 1997.
  • Today, post-school employment rates for youth served under IDEA are twice those of older adults with similar disabilities who did not have the benefit of IDEA.
  • Post-secondary enrollments among individuals with disabilities receiving IDEA services have also sharply increased, with the percentage of college freshmen reporting disabilities more than tripling since 1978.
In Conclusion
In a year like 2010, when schools are squeezed by a state in financial disarray, when budgets and programs are slashed with a hatchet; when the panic feeling of saving money makes people cut corners; special needs children will be the easy target for blaming and the victims of further cuts. As a parent and an advocate for my children, I have pledged to stay involved, informed and calm; attend as many school board meetings as I can, and share information with other parents.

I also pledged to monitor closely the next November election, when we will elect a new governor, a US senator, and, here in San Mateo County, two new state representative (both assemblyman Ruskin and senator Simitian are out of term).

For those of us who want to make a difference, this is the time to get informed, contact the candidates, hear their prospective on issues and flex our political muscles on election day. 

I am committed to push further and follow in the footsteps of the parents and advocates before us, who fought for their children to have a more appropriate education and a dignified life.


  1. Excellent!!! Thank you for posting this! If ok with you, I would like to post this link as a Favorite on my blog. EXCELLENT!

  2. NIce job of debunking the costs myth and promoting the benefits of special education. Thanks!

  3. I dont know who you are but thank God I found you! I've been looking for a really good blog on Autism and it looks like I have found it.

  4. @Pia, I'm sure Lea would be thrilled.

    @John, Lea will be pleased to read your compliments. She put a lot of work into this piece.

    @Jo, that is quite the compliment. I'll bop over to your blog and leave this tip o' the iceberg list of exceptional autism bloggers:

    Emily Willingham:

    Jennifer Byde Myers:

    Kristina Chew:

    Adults with Autism:

    Parent of older kids:
    Elise at Raising Asperger's Kids

    Adults on the spectrum:
    Rachel at Asperger Journeys:

    Elesia at Aspitude:

    Amanda Baggs at Ballastexistenz:

  5. Anonymous5:22 AM

    Thanks Squid for recommending my blog.

    I jsut wanted to comment on the article. I can't tell you the amount of times I have had arguments with ppl over special needs funding for school. I have been told the exact same things, its a waste, they will never be anything, its not fair, etc. I actually ahd one woman tell me to my face that it wasn't worthwhile education myboys because they will never go to college. As if her child has some kind of assured nobel prize in their future.(BTWcollegeman is in his second semester sophmore year in college)
    I have learned that there are some ppl you can educate and some ppl you just have to ignore if you can hold your tongue.
    The best part is, is that those who are screaming against specal ed would probably be the first ones in line if it was their child who needed help and they would demand that $100,000 a year school and sue to get it if necessary.

  6. What I'm hearing at budget meetings isn't people claiming that schools are underperforming because of the $$ spent on SPED, but that other groups of kids deserve just as much money as SPED kids. It's a bitterness. I chatted with one woman who, upon hearing my son had an IEP, said, "Well then you're golden!" The implication was that kids with disabilities have hit the education jackpot.

  7. Anonymous5:53 AM

    One of the reasons SPCED cost more has a lot to do with some ridiculous school districts policies that prevent the implementation of very simple solutions.

    Case in point: 15 y/o Aspie with big problems focusing on the task at hand during classwork time, YET, does not have similar problem at home. Upon further investigation, turns out the only difference reside in the use of his iPod to isolate from surrounding sounds. It also becomes obvious that music helps him a LOT with concentration.

    Ain't that the no-brainer "par excellence"?

    Not quite! Never let effectiveness and simplicity get in the way of the Almighty Policy. The parents were told that any electronic device were strictly verboten on school property, anywhere, anytime and that was that. If unhappy, go talk to the Board of Directors of the School District.

    Would it come as a complete shock if I wrote that a petition to this august body of Sages was summarily dismissed?

    Didn't think so!

    So, what does anyone think is happening in the meantime? More disruption in class, more time, resources and a hefty dose of aggravation is piling up...and no one is happy, far from it.

    Finally, multiply this situation by X, X being an ever increasing number and there you have it: School where policies have replaced common sense and flexibility will, of course, run into budget problems; problems of their own making, not because "those kids" are oh my god! such a problem.

    {end of rant}

  8. Anonymous4:47 PM

    I am a special education teacher and I honestly do not know where the money goes. We do not get paid any more than regular education teachers. The children do not use any different materials. We have to use grants and donations for any extras we need in the classroom. Assistive devices are available but hoops must be jumped through to obtain them unless you find the right person to help. And the list goes on.
    Golden? How so? I believe that if systems stop playing the blame game, cut some useless administrative positions and practice equity, all children would be able to receive what is needed to achieve success.


Respectful disagreement encouraged.