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MAINE: Over 20% of students receive SPED support; what are root causes?

April 10, 2024, Ellsworth (ME) American: Local educators discuss increase in special education needs 
Maine has the third-largest percentage of students receiving special education services in the country, according to findings from Pew Research Center. Those figures show that just over 20 percent of Maine students receive special education support.

Nationwide, public schools are reporting an increase in the number of students who need special education services. During the 2021-22 school year, 7.3 million students in special education made up 15 percent of national public-school enrollment, Pew found. During the 2010-11 school year, that figure was 13 percent with 6.4 million students. . . .

In Hancock County, the trend is evidenced by increases in school budgets and exacerbated by the workforce shortage of special educators and mental health professionals — another national trend.

But what are some of the root causes for the increased needs?

From earlier identification of student needs to the effects of social media and the impacts of COVID, local educators and administrators talked with The American to weigh in on possible reasons.

“I would say that there are two factors,” said Rachel Bousquet, regarding the increase in individualized education programs (IEPs), which map out a specialized plan for students requiring special education services. Bousquet is the executive director for KidsPeace New England. The organization provides services for children and families, including mental health inpatient and outpatient support, residential homes, community development and case management.

“Over the years, through more observation and better identification, we’ve been able to better serve children today with critical early intervention.”

The second factor, “there’s more need,” Bousquet added. “Mental health needs and the delivery of services are on the upswing.”

Bousquet noted the upswing has been going on for the last 5 to 10 years, with factors such as social media and the COVID pandemic intensifying mental health issues.

While the impacts of the COVID lockdowns amplified mental health needs, Bousquet said the pandemic also helped to destigmatize asking for mental health help.

“More people are seeking mental health services,” she said. . . .

This is, in part, what many communities are seeing with the increase in special education costs (and costs throughout departments) come budget time.

For Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24), a proposed 2024-25 school budget has special education costs up about 10 percent, said the district’s finance manager, Patti Riggs. A main factor for that is the significant increase in labor costs.

As the district works to increase wages and benefits to attract and retain quality employees, “Staffing costs have increased dramatically for the district across the board, not just special education,” said RSU 24 Superintendent Michael Eastman.

Another factor that raises costs is the lack of in-person therapy available for students, said RSU 24 Special Education Director Sue Leighton.

“Any kind of online, virtual services are pretty expensive,” she explained. “And you don’t have the benefit of having that person in the school to provide support.”

Just like Bousquet from KidsPeace observed, Leighton has seen a significant increase in students who are experiencing mental health issues.

“There’s been a huge increase … in mental health needs that are impacting students to access their education,” Leighton said. Mental health concerns include depression and anxiety. Behavioral challenges are also on the rise.

So, back to the big question — what is causing these increases?

“From my perspective, definitely society, and our culture, is different than it used to be,” Leighton said. “There’s much less interaction between people that doesn’t involve electronics and things like that, and I think that has really impacted people of all ages, not just students.”     . . .

Rob Liebow, the interim superintendent for Lamoine and Hancock, echoed the sentiment that educators are better equipped to identify early on when students may need extra help. He has been an educator for 47 years and pondered that the special education needs seen in students have been there for decades but haven’t been as keenly addressed until recently.

“I think the kids are just being identified better and getting what they deserve,” he said. “If they can get the accommodations they need, then they can fly and they deserve that … and years ago, it just wasn’t that way.” . . .

One school that is not seeing as much of a dramatic increase in students needing to access special education services is the Bay School, an independent pre-K-through-8 school in Blue Hill.

“We are watching the children in early childhood even more carefully,” said Head of School Marcia Diamond. Educators are noticing more speech delays in younger students that could be caused by masking and decreased socialization during the pandemic, but the number of grade-level children receiving special education services is “fairly similar” to pre-pandemic times, she said.

The school, which already focuses on spending time outdoors, shifted during the pandemic to include even more outdoor learning.

“There are skills that are developing differently,” Diamond said about students returning to more indoor work.

Diamond is also seeing levels of anxiety and stress that are likely attributed to the pandemic. She said the school’s “strong social curriculum and a lot of outdoor time” address those concerns. . . . 



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