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Special needs students stay in traditional public schools as others leave

Other students are increasingly seeking out alternative options, causing the cost of educating special needs students to fall disproportionately on regular public schools.

By Christina HoagAssociated Press / August 20, 2012

Special needs students like Matthew Asner (r.) are remaining in public schools while other students seek out charter schools and other programs.

Damian Dovarganes/AP

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The high cost of educating students with special needs is disproportionately falling on traditional public schools as other students increasingly opt for alternatives that aren't always readily open to those requiring special education.

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The issue is particularly acute in districts where enrollment has declined due to demographic changes such as low birth rates and population shifts combined with an influx of charter schools and voucher programs that have siphoned off students.

School district officials say all schools that receive public funds should share the cost of special education.

"It raises an ethical responsibility question," said Eric Gordon, chief executive officer of Cleveland Metropolitan School District. "We welcome our students with special needs, but the most expensive programming is on public districts."

In Cleveland, the district has lost 41 percent of its students since 1996 while its proportion of students with special needs rose from 13.4 percent to 22.9 percent last year. In Milwaukee, enrollment has dropped by nearly 19 percent over the past decade, but the percentage of students with disabilities has risen from 15.8 percent in 2002 to 19.7 percent in 2012.

Los Angeles, the nation's second largest system with 665,000 students, has seen enrollment slide by 8.5 percent since 2005-06, while its special needs population has increased from 11 percent to 13 percent.

The U.S. Department of Education's office of civil rights is investigating charter school practices relating to students with disabilities in five districts around the country, said Russlyn Ali, assistant secretary of civil rights. The probes, which look at admissions, curriculum and accommodation of needs, are the first of their kind, said Ali, who would not release the names of the districts.

While the number of students with special needs has not increased, the rising proportion has driven up costs for cash-strapped schools. Special education, which requires speech pathologists, psychologists and trained teachers, and sometimes special facilities and equipment, can cost four times more than general education. Federal funds only cover a fraction of the extra expense.

Public Schools of Philadelphia, for example, spent $9,100 per regular education pupil in 2009, $14,560 per pupil with milder disabilities and $39,130 for more severe disabilities, according to a consultant's report that compared special education costs. Other districts cited report similar numbers: Los Angeles Unified spent $6,900 to school a regular education student, $15,180 for a pupil with milder disabilities and $25,530 for a child with significant needs.

With budget shortfalls creating staffing crunches and federal law requiring putting children with disabilities in regular classrooms when possible to remove the stigma and encourage diversity, general education teachers now may find a number of pupils with special needs in their classes.

"There used to be one or two. You'd sit them at the front of the class, but now there are 10 or 12," said Barbara Schulman, an Orange County special education teacher who heads the California Teachers Association's special education committee. "Teachers need to know what they're doing."

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