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Berkeley, CA: SPED spending up 30%, enrollment down; "more severe disabilities, especially autism"

May 5, 2023, Berkeley (CA) Side: Why the cost of special education is rising at Berkeley schools
Spending on special education has increased 30% in Berkeley Unified over four years. The cost of educating students with disabilities in Berkeley Unified is going up, even as overall enrollment continues to decline, straining district budgets and creating a dilemma for fully funding special ed.

Expenditures for special education are expected to total $38 million this year, an increase of $9 million from the 2018-19 school year. The money goes toward serving over 1,000 BUSD students who receive special education services for disabilities like dyslexia, autism and speech impairments and make up 12% of the district’s overall student body.

“We’re seeing a decrease in the population of all of our students, but our students with IEPs [individualized education plans] are either staying the same or growing,” Shawn Mansager, special education director at Berkeley Unified, said during a May 3 school board meeting. “That does create a bit of a quandary for how we continue to fund special education services.”

Special education costs have been rising statewide for over 15 years, in large part because of an increase in the share of students with more severe disabilities, especially autism, who require more intensive support, according to a 2019 report by the legislative analyst’s office. At BUSD, much of the growing budget in recent years is going toward paying for more special education staff, as well as contractors like aides who work directly with students, Mansager said. The change means staff can devote more time to working with individual students than in other California districts, but it comes with a price tag….

And the cost of supporting students’ mental health needs has also risen.

BUSD, like other California school districts, is increasingly paying for special education out of local dollars, rather than out of shrinking state and federal funds. Today, California districts pay 61% of the costs of special education, up from 40% a decade ago.

Enrollment has been declining in BUSD from a peak of 10,462 students in 2015, though the decline slowed in the last two years. The state uses attendance numbers to determine district funding.

In California, educating students with disabilities costs on average triple what it does to educate those without disabilities. The money largely goes to pay for case managers, aides, counselors and other staff who support students. But the state doesn’t fully cover the increased cost of educating students in special education….

Currently, about two-thirds of the $38 million special education budget goes toward district staff and another 15% goes to pay nurses, instructional aides and other hard to staff positions who are contracted out from non-public agencies.

Over the last five years, the number of “full-time equivalent staff” who work with students with disabilities has increased from 224 in 2018 to 268 in 2022. (Two staff members working half-time equate to one full-time equivalent staff.)

A 2018-19 agreement between the district and the teacher’s union reduced the maximum load for case managers to 21 to 23 students with mild to moderate disabilities, compared with a maximum caseload of 28 set by the state. That number drops to 11 to 13 for those with more severe disabilities. The district also hired more aides and school psychologists.

Mental health is also a factor in the rising costs. After the pandemic, the number of students needing residential treatment centers increased and, though the increase was small, the treatment centers are expensive, running into six figures per year. In addition, the share of students receiving mental health support who qualify for Medicaid has shrunk as the number of low-income students at BUSD has declined. The district expects to spend about $1.8 million on mental health for students with disabilities this year, up $400,000 from 2018. (The budget has yet to be finalized and these amounts could change before the end of the school year)….

At the same time, the district spent $3.2 million dollars this year to send students to non-public schools, an increase of over $1 million compared with the previous year, a change that Mansager also partially attributed to the pandemic. When the district determines it cannot meet the needs of a student with disabilities, it pays for the student to attend a non-public school, a private school certified by the state specializing in special education. …

Declining enrollment in recent decades has put a financial strain on districts.

“The budget does not operate in a bubble,” Mansager said. “The federal government still has not lived up to its promise from 1975 IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Act] that they would cover 40% of the extra cost of special education. We need to continue to lobby our federal government to meet that promise.”


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