By Louis Freedberg

Spending on special education students in California has increased by just over 20% over the past decade — from $10.8 billion to $13 billion in inflation-adjusted figures, according to a new report.
That’s just one of the startling figures in the report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) that provides a detailed overview of California’s special education system, which now serves some 800,000 students with physical, cognitive and learning disabilities.
They make up about one in eight of California’s public school students.
Despite the massive investment, special education students lag behind almost all other student groups on a range of measures, such as average test scores and graduation rates. They also are suspended from school and are chronically absent — which means absent from school for 10% or more of the instructional year — at higher rates.
The majority of students have relatively mild disabilities like speech impairments and specific learning disabilities like dyslexia. However, the number of students with severe disabilities has increased substantially, doubling over the past two decades, according to the report.
The biggest increase has been in the proportion of children diagnosed with autism, which has risen from one in 600 students in 1997/98 to one in 50 students in 2017/18 — a 12-fold increase.
The report comes against a backdrop of concerns among state leaders that the special education has not undergone much-needed reforms in areas compared to other parts of the education system.
As part of the budget legislation approved earlier this year (now part of the California Education Code), in order for certain state funds to be allocated for special education next year, the Legislature will be required to come up with a number of reforms “to improve the academic outcomes of individuals with exceptional needs.”
The LAO’s report underscored the extraordinary financial pressures on local school districts to educate students with disabilities.
The average cost of educating a special education student each year is $26,000, compared to $9,000 to educate a “general education” student. Costs vary widely depending on the disability of each student, the LAO report notes. For example, it might cost $1,000 a year to provide a student with periodic speech therapy, while a student in an out-of-state non-public school with severe emotional problems might cost a district $100,000 a year.
Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school districts are required to provide special education students with the services they need, as spelled out in what is called an Individualized Education Plan agreed to by parents and school officials.
Beth Burt, president of the Autism Society of California, said that the state has made considerable progress in serving students with significant disabilities such as autism.
Most school districts, she said, have autism specialists and many offer speech and occupational therapy. She said her son, who is now 26, was diagnosed with autism when he was three. He graduated from high school with honors and is now working, thanks in part to the many services he received in the schools he attended.
The success of her son and others like him provides ample justification for whatever expense is involved, Burt said. “What is that dollar amount that we are willing to invest to make every student a productive member of our community?” Burt said. “If we as a society were to say ‘We don’t want to invest in a student because he or she has a certain diagnosis,’ who is to say who is more or less deserving of an education? The alternative is unthinkable.”
One major problem in covering costs is that despite mandating that school districts provide needed and often expensive services, the federal government has never paid anything remotely close to what the original law set as its goal in 1977. The federal government was supposed to pay each state the equivalent of 40% of the average national per-student expenditure on education multiplied by the number of special education students in that state.
But because of inflation and the failure of congressional allocations to keep up with rising costs, the gap between what the federal government is paying and should be paying continues to widen, most dramatically over the past decade. That gap is now estimated to be $3.2 billion, according to the LAO report.
Congress has also avoided dealing with the issue by failing to reauthorize the federal disability law, something it is supposed to do every five years. But the last time it did so was in 2004. There had been some talk of reauthorization happening this year, but in the current fractious climate in Washington, that is unlikely to happen.
Local school districts have had to pick up an ever-increasing share of the costs. On average, California school districts now pay 61% of the costs, up from 49% just a decade ago, according to the LAO report.
School districts are even required to pay for special education services for students attending private schools. Last year districts covered special education services for about 2,300 students attending private schools in California, the report noted.
Another flaw in how California underwrites special education is that state funds are mostly allocated based on total district enrollment, not based on the number of students in special education or the severity of their disabilities.
Special education was the focus of considerable attention while Jerry Brown was governor. A Statewide Special Education Task Force created by the State Board of Education and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing issued a 220-page report in 2015 with multiple recommendations, including creating a “culture of collaboration and coordination” across numerous state agencies and giving school districts more control over special education funds.
But few of its reforms were implemented.
Michael Kirst, the president of the State Board of Education during Brown’s tenure between 2011 and 2018, lamented that the failure to reform the special education system represented a major piece of unfinished business in the state.
Reform is now a high priority for Linda Darling-Hammond, the current president of the state board, and she and Gov. Gavin Newsom are exploring a range of options.
Louis Freedberg is executive director of EdSource. For more than two decades, Freedberg has analyzed and reported on local, state, and national education policy. Before coming to EdSource, Freedberg was the founding director of California Watch at the Center for Investigative Reporting. He spent 15 years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was an award-winning education reporter, Washington correspondent, columnist, and member of the editorial board. He has a Ph.D. in social anthropology from UC Berkeley and a B.A. in child development from Yale University. You can find the original story at