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October 30, 2002

Special education — more than a political football

From: Minnesota This Week Newspapers, MN
Oct. 30, 2002

by Brett Andersen
Staff Writer

In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which opened the doors of public education to millions of disabled children.

n 2002, a commonly held belief and political mantra is that the federal government contributed to school funding shortfalls by failing to live up to the financial promises associated with the IDEA.

According to West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan School District 197 Director of Special Programs Tom Schoepf, the federal government actually promised to fund 40 percent of the excess costs of special education. For example, if the district spends $6,500 on a traditional student and $9,000 on a special needs student, the federal government would reimburse 40 percent of the $2,500 difference.

Schoepf said the percentage of reimbursement will vary slightly from district to district and District 197 is receiving approximately 14 percent.

However, Schoepf said, if they would receive the full 40 percent, school districts would still have budget concerns because special education is only one of the increasing costs. “Skyrocketing” health insurance costs combined with inflation, increasing salaries and other costs have contributed to budget concerns, he said.

Special Education Coordinator for Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District 196 Sue Backman said she is unsure how the federal government stepping up to its promise would impact the district’s budget.

According to Backman, the money flows through the state coffers currently.

Special education in Minnesota is financed roughly 50 percent by the district and 50 percent by the state.

“When the federal money comes in,” said Backman, “will we get to offset our half or will the state offset their half?”

The funding would be good for the state regardless of where the money stops, she said.

“Somebody’s budget would be relieved,” she said, “I just don’t know that it would be our local budget.”

District 196 serves about 3,500 students in special education, said Backman. Most of them are mild cases and these students can be in regular classrooms during the majority of the school day.

“If the federal government was just talking about covering those needs, we’d be fine,” said Backman. “But we also have to serve these more severe kids.”

Some kids require nurses with them all day. Backman said one student they serve goes “home” to a hospital every night because his parents can’t care for him at home.

“I think that schools are the appropriate place for kids with disabilities,” she said. “I don’t want to go back to when kids weren’t allowed access to schools.”

Backman said in the long run it was less expensive to educate a student living at home than to house them in an institution.

Minnesota made the move to inclusion ahead of the 1975 law.

“It’s not really particularly new,” said Schoepf of the inclusion movement.

Schoepf said District 197 serves about 800 special education students. The general population of District 197 is about 4,900 students. Public schools also provide special education services to private school students, said Schoepf. District 197 encompasses about 2,800 students enrolled in private school.

According to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce, chaired by John A Boehner (R-Ohio), the 40 percent promise was made based on 1975 estimates that educating a special education student cost twice as much as educating a nondisabled student.

When IDEA was reauthorized in 1997, the modifications included a charge to study the actual costs of educating disabled students. The results of the study are expected by April 2003.

Two approaches

Mainstreaming special needs students is when the students are placed in a normal classroom with the appropriate support systems. In center-based programming, the students spend most of their day outside of the regular classrooms and predominately with special education teachers.

According to Backman, Minnesota law requires students to be in the “least restrictive environment” appropriate to their situation.

Both Backman and Schoepf said they assemble teams involving people who will work with the student in order to determine where that environment is located. Teams usually consist of parents, regular classroom teachers, special education teachers and administrators.

“Usually parents and teachers are on the same page,” said Backman. “Sometimes we’re not.”

There are practically no concrete rules to follow when placing a special needs child. It takes good judgment and cooperation between team members.
“We make those decisions based on what the needs of the students are,” said Schoepf.

Backman said they put “roadblocks” every step of the way to ensure students aren’t being taken too far from the regular classroom. Those blocks include meetings with parents, trying additional support measures and performing a “functional behavior assessment” for behavioral problems.

The roadblocks force justification during every step, said Backman, but they do add to the paperwork frustration because everything needs to be documented.

The assessments try to ferret out the root of the student’s behavioral problem. By identifying the cause, the staff is better able to deal with the behavior problem.

Students who can’t be mainstreamed are placed in center-based programs within the schools.

For students in District 196 with emotional and behavioral disorders who can’t function in the center-based programs, they go to Dakota Ridge School in Apple Valley.

According to Backman, sometimes the very small class sizes — the whole school has a student population of about 120 — is enough to help some students.

Dakota Ridge’s student population consists primarily of middle and high school students with the single largest grade being ninth. The school currently has 13 eighth graders, 31 ninth graders and 16 10th-grade students.

“A lot of kids — they grow up,” said Backman.

Staff works with students “intensely” at Dakota Ridge in order to work them back into their regular high schools, she said.

Schoepf said the number of students identified as behaviorally and emotionally disabled is growing. He said two of the reasons for the increase are they have become better at identifying disorders and that the drop-out rate has steadily decreased. In the past, said Schoepf, if a student didn’t fit well within a school, they dropped out.

According to the Department of Education, currently twice as many students with disabilities drop out of school as nondisabled students.

However, three times the number of students with disabilities are enrolled in higher education and twice as many 20-year-olds with disabilities are working as compared to 1975.

What is a disability?

According to IDEA, students with the following disabilities are eligible for special education services: autism, visual impaired/blind, hearing impaired/deaf, developmental cognitive disabilities — formerly known as mental retardation — orthopedic impairment, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, specific learning disabilities, emotional disturbance and other health impairments.

Other health impairments include asthma, epilepsy, diabetes, fetal alcohol syndrome and the controversial attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

States and local school districts have the option of providing special education services to students who are experiencing developmental delays in physical, cognitive, emotional, communicative or adaptive developments if the student is between the ages of 3 and 9.

Reform on the way?

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce has stated IDEA is its next priority. Issues include the “over-identification” of minority students and a “red tape burden” imposed on school districts.

While the committee asserts the over-identification of minority students is still a problem, the Department of Education states the 1997 updates require states to gather demographic data to ensure identification equality.

The department states the revisions also eliminated unnecessary assessments, which is estimated to have saved school districts $765 million nationwide.

The committee can be found at The Department of Education is at

Brett Andersen is at

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