So, You Think Special Education is Expensive?

Jennie H. DunKley
Blog Post

“If you think meaningful special education is expensive today, rest assured, it’s nowhere near as expensive as tomorrow will be without it.”

On January 11, the U.S. Supreme Court will review a Colorado case to define the level of “benefit” required for more than 6 million students with disabilities. More than any high stakes test, or who holds the cabinet post of Education Secretary, the impact of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District will determine expectations and outcomes for our entire public education system.

For all students, equal opportunity to learn requires a dependable and accessible series of doors, floors and academic instruction. In order to learn, some children need different shaped entryways, smoother floors, wider instructional methods and refined curriculum.

The motivating force behind most special education debates is not student learning and the level of independent, contributing adults they will become. Instead the blatant driver is the double suck of dollars needed to provide education for complex learners and on law suits started because individualized services cost more than communities can afford.

Local school districts don’t want to litigate; litigation uses up resources needed to deliver services. Communities want to provide meaningful services for all students, and not just because those services are mandated. Parents don’t want to sue; only a tiny percentage can even afford the time, emotion and finances needed to litigate.

The cases that come before the courts seldom reflect moderate-to-less-advantaged communities and families, so it’s easy to see how public perception of special education expectations, rights and needs may be skewed.

If you think special education is expensive today, you’re right.

Federal funding has never approached even half the 40% level targeted when the special education law was first passed in 1975. That’s over 40 years of insufficient funding and insufficient educational services resulting in millions of adults that could be more independent and more economically engaged.

We’ve pushed fulfillment of special education mandates onto local communities that rely on property taxes to cover the unfunded portions of both the services and the law suits. When community resources aren’t sufficient to provide appropriate services, the burden of obtaining those services (along with the massive legal burden of proof) falls on the family.

Court is the final avenue available to families – and what a distracting, inefficient, exhausting, counterproductive and expensive avenue it is for everyone.

If you think special education is expensive today, buckle up. There is no way around it; the complex needs of some individual children and the responsibility to meaningfully educate won’t change – no matter how the standard for benefit is defined. But creating a sub-standard expectation for one group of learners because it’s expensive, is perilous for everyone.

The standard of educational benefit assigned to children with disabilities will reflect the standard of benefit assigned to all. If standards remain low or are lowered further for one group of students, the economic and social impact on all of us when they graduate will be exponential.

The federal law reauthorized in 2004 is titled the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It states:

“The purpose of IDEA is to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free and appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.”
–20 US. § 1400(d)(1)(A)

School districts and families will anxiously await the Supreme Court’s interpretation of how much benefit our students can expect from education; but debate, conflict and the wasted expense of litigation will not slow until Congress funds IDEA as intended. Until then, we will have to bear the economic, social, safety and cultural expense of the millions of adults left unprepared for further education, employment and independent living – and the tacit acceptance that a low level of benefit is okay for all.

In both the long and short terms, states will not profit by continuing to wait for the courts to define educational “benefit” and for Congress to appropriately fund the federal share.

If you think meaningful special education is expensive for we grown-ups today, rest assured, it’s nowhere near as expensive as tomorrow will be without it.


Jennie H. DunKley, a prominent Massachusetts special education advocate, is founder and executive director of The ThinkEd Project, Inc. and JDK Communications: Special Education Consulting.