Supreme Court Special Ed Case Could Have Huge Implications

In the second case in two years, the Supreme Court is hearing a case about a public school district's responsibility to pay for private school for students who seek special education services that a school district doesn't provide (but the family never sought out) . It could have major financial implications for school districts across the country including ours. Here's the issue (this from an article in the NY Times):

"Legally, both cases center on the interpretation of a 1997 amendment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which provides that disabled children are entitled to a "free appropriate public education."

That amendment says that parents of children with disabilities "who previously received special education" services in a public setting may be entitled to reimbursement for private-school tuition if their public school did not make free appropriate public education available in a timely manner.

While most of the nation's 6 million special-education students attend public school, the law allows parents to seek public financing for private school if the public schools cannot adequately serve their children. Almost 90,000 students are in private placements, most of them with their public school's agreement.

But increasingly, thousands of families unilaterally enroll their learning-disabled, emotionally disabled or autistic children in private schools — often with staggeringly high tuitions — and then seek reimbursement."

I can surely get possibly needing to go outside of a public school for services. But it does seem like the Act requires (asks) parents to give the public school system an opportunity to meet their needs. That doesn't seem like a lot to ask before going elsewhere. Likewise, the key phrase "in a timely manner" would imply that the district can't stall or switch the student around from school to school in order to put off having to pay for private school services.


ARB said…
In the pending court case, the parents DID ask for services in public school and were told there was no need for them before they went to a private school. I realize people thing the system is full of abuses, but it is very difficult to get a school district to agree to provide special ed assistance and even then, it usually provides only as little as it can get away with and only on its own terms-- such as only in certain (often failing) schools.
zb said…
I do agree that this case is going to have significant implications for public schools. And, it's a good example of how litigation (and laws) will result in specific solutions for specific individuals, which could create ripple effects for many others. As many point out, the right to an appropriate education is guaranteed only to a specific class of individuals right now, those with diagnosed disabilities. In some districts, that identified right (while other children don't have it) means that a large percent of the budget is spent on a small group of students. DC is the most extreme example of this result, where 15% of the school district's budget is spent on the 3% of the students who have placement in private schools). Mind you, DC is a broken system, where many get an inadequate education. But only a subgroup has the right to demand it legally resulting in a skewed allocation of resources.
Sahila said…
zb said:
"As many point out, the right to an appropriate education is guaranteed only to a specific class of individuals right now, those with diagnosed disabilities. In some districts, that identified right (while other children don't have it) means that a large percent of the budget is spent on a small group of students. DC is the most extreme example of this result, where 15% of the school district's budget is spent on the 3% of the students who have placement in private schools). Mind you, DC is a broken system, where many get an inadequate education. But only a subgroup has the right to demand it legally resulting in a skewed allocation of resources."

You dont think the Seattle system is broken, where many get an inadequate education?

I do, and while that opinion's not based on any comparative experience within the United States, it is based on comparative experience in other western countries and on global educational performance statistics...

I totally agree with the statement that under the current system operating, only a few who have a specific legal standing can demand and get (after a fight) educational resources that are appropriate for their needs... all the other children, who don't have a 'label' on which to hang their claim, get what a miserly, narrow-minded and incompetent system chooses to make available....
zb said…
"You dont think the Seattle system is broken, where many get an inadequate education?"

No, I don't.

I think that would be an interesting poll, here at the SPS community blog.
seattle citizen said…
My guess is that...70% of Seattle students get an "adequate" (?) or better education.
While there are certainloy issues, I can't help but think that there are many good students and many good educators (certs, staff, principals...parent.guardians, community...)

That said, the special ed funding issue is huge. I don't know where I sit: Yes, services to all, certainly is expensive sometimes (an over-simplification, yes, but there it is.)
Charlie Mas said…
While I'm not crazy about a number of the decisions made in the headquarters, I believe that the vast majority of the work done by teachers, principals and staff in the schools is very good. There are notable exceptions, but, for the most part, I think that Seattle Public School students are well-served.
Sahila said…
I think the kids get what education they get IN SPITE OF the District, BECAUSE of the teachers, principals, parents - all that extra creativity, dedication, time, effort and money contributed over and above the call of duty ....

If you think of the infrastructure in place and the curriculum and learning materials (or lack thereof) being offered in the richest country on the planet in the 21st Century, its pathetic.... given its advantages, this country - and this city - ought to be at the cutting edge of educating our next generation, instead of lagging behind the rest of the western world....

There really is no excuse for the mess SPS is in, or education generally in this country...

And I'm not confident it will get better under Obama because of the philosophical basis his education policies are built on - which is a shame really - a great chance to nurture human potential in its broadest and deepest capacity missed...
Sahila said…

For those of you interested in the issue of spending on education in this country.... the website address above gives some statistics about US military spending compared to the rest of the world, then some figures and charts about US spending on education - for this current year, less than 2% of the taxes gathered federally, compared to 44% on military activities - and highlighting the downward trend in money being directed to education since 2003...

I know this is not a problem SPS can solve, but SPS ought to be working with parents and educators and the community to get government to reverse this trend... and it ought to be listening to parents, educators and the community about creative ways to handle budgetary constraints, rather than tweaking here, snipping here, annihilating whole communities there...

and for those of you who think I think New Zealand is the promised land.... the 's..t' hits the fan there too, quite regularly.... but somehow, we Kiwis seem to be able to talk about it, we look at administrative spending and processes before we cut services and teacher-pupil rations, we admit our stuff-ups a bit more honestly, and we dont make our kids pay for our mistakes...

dan dempsey said…
Education provided is greatly effected by Central Admin decision making. Consider Everyday Math and the "Fidelity of Implementation" using the pacing plan.

The pacing plan is a way to take control away from teachers. This is hardly a great idea when the materials and the pacing plan are defective.

I agree due to the efforts of teachers and parents many students receive an adequate education despite the central administration.
Roy Smith said…
Sahila, schools in the United States are primarily supported by the states, not the Federal Government, so the percentage of Federal taxes that goes to support education is rather uninformative as a measure of how much our society does or doesn't support public education.

About 27% of Washington State's budget goes to support K-12 education, and an additional 16% goes to support higher education. These are the second and third highest line items on the state budget, after DSHS.
spedvocate said…
It’s clear this blog has no special education participation. Let’s at least get our facts straight on funding rather than demonizing or disabled kids as worthless budget busters. It might feel good to blame them for some service your child didn't get, but the courts have found the overspending for special education claims to be false.

Washington State funds it’s students on IEPs by law with a .9X multiplier of the Basic Education Allocation, the BEA. That means each kid with an IEP gets 1.9 * BEA of the state funding other children recieve. 13% of the students receive special education services. Do the math, you will see that means that 22% of the state’s budget is allocated for 13% of the kids. If we count federal and local levy money, the percentage is even less. Many districts claim that they spend way more than what they receive, and even sued the state to change the funding formula. A judge, with an audit team, found the claim of the districts to be unsubstantiated. The decision was upheld on appeal. The districts had failed to account for the BEA given all students. Instead, they were trying to fund special education with excess multiplier alone. That was never the intent of the legislated funding mechanism for funding special education. To make a long story short here are the facts.

1) Less than 22% of the budget goes for 13% of the students, those on IEPs.

2) This 22% funding is not even completely used up by sped students.
(see court’s opinion below)

3) The BEA is supposed to follow a student where-ever he goes. If he leaves general education setting, the BEA as well as the .9 multiplier, follows him into the special education setting. That means, BEA funding is supposed to be used support special education. However, most districts fail to make that accounting requirement.

Read the courts opinion and note that the findings of "overspending" on sped students remain unsubstantiated.
spedvocate said…
Let’s continue with an example. Johnny Disabled is the quintessential sped student. He has an articulation disorder and thereby represents the majority of sped students. For his disability Johnny receives the standard 30 minutes of speech per week, shared with 3 classmates. How much does this service cost the district?

A district speech therapist costs around $60 per hour. Johnny’s part of that bill is $10 since it is shared with 3 boys. Multiplied out over 40 weeks, that is $400 dollars per year. Now let’s look at what the district receives for Johnny. Given a $5000 BEA, Johnny also gets an EXTRA $4500, even though he only costs $400. Further, since 2% of Johnny’s school week is spent in special education, %2 of his BEA is supposed to go to special education as well. That’s $100 of Johnny’s BEA that will be paid to his speech therapist. (see the court’s opinion above to verify that: Yes, the BEA money needs to follow Johnny into special education.) So, we have $300 dollars we need to spend on Johnny’s special education. What happened to the other $4,200? ???

Johnny's speech cost: $400 year
Sped money district gets: $4,500
Amount of BEA paid for slp: $100
Total SPED cost for Johnny: $300
Amount leftover: $4,200We need to remember, Johnny is the most common type of special education. There’s a lot of extra $4,200 floating around in the school districts. Where does it go? Who gets it?
beansa said…
Who was demonizing disabled kids?
ARB said…
The original post seemed to indicate that special ed students are overburdening the system by asking for special services. zb followed up with a statement that special ed students create a "skewed allocation of resources."

I posted originally to make sure the facts the blog reported about of the pending supreme court case accurate reflect what happened.

I would love for someone to follow the missing money, the issue raised by spedadvocate.

In my first year of dealing with the district, I can't say I am impressed in ANY way by the central admin's special ed team (although individual teachers are wonderful).
I was reporting about court cases and tried to be neutral. I didn't say said about special ed students "overburdening" the system and I provided links to the story so that the facts of the case could be read.
hschinske said…
Speech problems are actually much less common than specific learning disabilities. According to,

"Highest-incidence disability categories exhibit the lowest levels of per pupil spending. Students with the two most common disabilities, specific learning
disabilities and speech/language impairments, make up 46 percent and 17 percent of the students who receive special education services, respectively. Per pupil spending on these two categories are $10,558 for specific learning disabled and $10,958 for
speech/language impaired."

In general the *average* expenditure per student on an IEP is about 1.9 times that of a regular ed student, so apparently the state counts the students on IEPs and allots special ed money to the district accordingly. Whether it then gets divvied up fairly or not is one thing, but I don't see anything inherently unfair about that funding mechanism. Naturally some students need far more from that pot than others.

My own son has a mild speech impairment (stuttering) and has been on an IEP off and on. I wouldn't be surprised if the marginal cost of fulfilling his IEP has actually been almost nothing, given that the SLP's he's seen have been on staff at Lowell and not charging by the hour. But then, the marginal cost of adding a 26th child to a class that previously held 25 is not very much, either. That's no argument for reducing per-pupil spending.

Helen Schinske

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