Minnesota’s Special Education Rising, Putting Burden on Public Schools

School districts left under-funded as number of students and costs increase


Story by: Jamie Soule

State and federal funding shortfalls have caused local public schools to cover the remaining expenses of special education.

The state is responsible for 50% of special education costs, while federal is responsible for 40%, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. Last year, local districts should have only spent $144 million, but they spent $595 million instead, a $353 million difference.

Because of cutbacks in mental health programs, public schools have had to take over the burden of instructing disabled students. However, spending in special education programs has increased more than 70% in the last 10 years.

Public schools are not allowed to cut funding in special education programs without documentation of decreased enrollment. Therefore, the increasing bills have caused schools to cut other programs, such as art and music.

Earlier this year, Governor Mark Dayton proposed an increase in the budget for special education by $62.4 million per year.

Districts have also asked for help from voters, which has been successful in some districts but not in others. St. Paul voters approved a bill for $39 million to wedge the 37% funding gap. However, in Minneapolis the funding gap remains at $34 million, while the administration is considering a $25 million budget cut, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

Disabled Children on the Rise

English: A special education teacher assists o...

A special education teacher assists one of her students. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Though some disabilities are declining, many have increased by substantial margins. In the last decade:

    • Physical and other health disabilities up by 94%
    • Severely multiply impaired students is up to 1,299 (from 0 in 2001)
    • Autistic student numbers increased 446%
    • Total number of students diagnosed with disabilities increased 14%, from 112,903 in 2001 to 128,430 students in 2012

Public vs. Intermediate Controversy

The controversy lies in the long-term effects of segregation. Public school officials feel it is necessary for special needs students to mingle with regular students. However, schools that instruct only disabled students feel it is safer both for students and staff to have them separated.

Parents and administrators alike fear that public school officials cannot accommodate special needs students. Private space, special instruction and competent staff are necessities and need ample funding.

Mistreatment of disabled students in public schools has also been the picket of debate lately. The state investigates about 80 cases of disabled students’ rights violations each year.

On the other hand, disabled students segregated into intermediate schools are less likely to ever integrate into a public school setting, deterring the possibility of independence.

The cost for a disabled student to attend a so-called intermediate district school averages more than $50,000 per year, with some more than $150,000 per year. Annual cost for special needs students in a public school averages $22,144, while a general education student averages $8,486.

Intermediate Schools in Minnesota

The differences between a public school and an intermediate district varies, but the emphasis is on the humanity and safety of the student.

North Education Center is a $35-million specialized facility that opened last fall. There, students have access to a range of things they wouldn’t find in a public school:

  • Timeout room (some with a revolving mood light)
  • Carpeted classroom
    –Contains swing and/or rocking chairs
  • Smartboard with Concentration-like videogame
  • Customized tricycle to ride in hallways
  • 100+ video cameras in 40+ locations

All of the above amenities are to emphasize relaxation to prevent violent outbursts.

North Education Center, located in New Hope, has 450 students and 250 staff members and is one of four new centers in the metro area.

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