Special ed students could bankrupt districts


A UC Davis study found that before 1990, nine in 10,000 kids were diagnosed with autism by age six. Ten years later it jumped to 44 in 10,000. Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 110 have an autism spectrum disorder.

"It was something you had to explain every time and now it's sort of like, you know, he has that popular thing autism," Jane LaPides, whose son Travis has autism, said. "It seems like everybody knows now which makes it easier but it's hard for me to imagine how there are so many new cases."

Whatever the cause, parents like LaPides are by guaranteed by law a "free and appropriate" education for their kids. Congress declared it so in 1975.

Because they need additional services, the federal government is supposed to contribute 40 percent of the costs of educating special education students. But many school districts say they are lucky to get between 10 and 15 percent, leaving the districts to make up the difference.

Gilroy Unified School District is one of those districts that is struggling to cover the costs of educating special needs students.

"In 2002, our unfunded special ed costs were about $170,000, this school year it's $3,200,000," district spokesperson Deborah Toups said.

The Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose says if the trend continues it will bankrupt districts.

"It's definitely costly because it requires more personnel and more services," district spokesperson Ray Easler said.

As a result, more money is being taken from the general fund. And districts admit, because the federal funds are not there, not everyone is implementing these special education services effectively, so many parents like LaPides opt for non-public schools which are privately operated.

The Orion Academy is an example. Most of the kids there have Asperger's syndrome. Tuition at the school is $30,000 a year.

If a parent of a public school student is able to demonstrate that their district cannot provide adequate services for their child but a non-public school can, the local school district must pay for tuition, services and transportation.

Toups says sometimes parents expect too much.

"Districts are expected to provide the Volkswagen version which is this is what you need to be successful in a public school setting," she said. "We have parents who, for a lot of different reasons, think they should be getting the Cadillac version."

Juno Duenas is with the San Francisco organization Support for Families. She says all kids deserve a good education and services.

"Most people think those kids with disabilities can't, and so why are we giving them money because they can't," she said. "And what people don't realize is that if you provide the supports and services they can."

Travis spent most of his years in San Francisco public schools until his parents felt it was time to go non-public. He is now 19.

"Every kid in the district needs more than the budget is giving them, so to say, 'Well, my kid needs even more,' you feel like it's kind of taking it from the other kids, but you would rather it came from another source, but I'm not going to let that go," LaPides said.

Parents and school districts agree as the number of children with autism increases, Congress must come to terms with the fact that the demand for more services will drain school budgets even more.

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