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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Make Special Education Special at Budget Time

November 23, 2002|James A. Fleming | James A. Fleming is superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District.

The reports about a dramatic increase in childhood autism may baffle scientists scrambling to identify causes, but they are not surprising to school districts. As president of the California City Schools Superintendents Assn., I know that my colleagues are following the issue with apprehension.

My 50,000-student district in southern Orange County has gone from having 18 autistic students in 1995 to 223 in 2001, an increase of more than 1,100% in less than six years. The strain on our staff and our budget has been enormous as teachers and administrators balance their struggle to give these students the best possible chance for a productive future with the reality that special education funding is woefully inadequate. These children must be served now. The search for a cause and for potential cures cannot allay the urgency of our mission.

The annual cost of the necessary services for one autistic child runs as much as $33,760 in our district; overall, this class of disability is the most costly one for schools to serve well. We provide an assessment center for infants and their families. We have trained a cadre of specialists to apply the intensive behavior intervention that experience shows will work with autistic students. Our teachers have incorporated specialized techniques in their classrooms, such as one-on-one lessons that are broken down into small, highly structured steps. One example is a series of lessons teaching younger children what a color is. We have expanded the number of speech pathologists and occupational therapists.

My district undertakes all of these services not simply because of federal requirements for comprehensive special education for those children who need it but because we are, first and foremost, educators who wish to serve every child in our system.

It touches every educator when a parent writes to say "our hearts are full and appreciative, because we know the program is expensive, and you have reached out and made our boy a happy one who is fully included in school, who has a good relationship with schoolmates, and even a best friend in the neighborhood."

But we cannot continue to shoulder the dramatically increased costs to cover special education for autistic and other special-needs children without additional help from Congress -- help that was promised more than a quarter of a century ago when the Individuals With Disabilities Act was passed. The act promised that school districts would be reimbursed for 40% of expenses beyond those normally incurred for other children. This year, the federal government has paid 17%.

For my district, Capistrano Unified, about $16 million must be taken from regular education funds this year to pay for the high expenses of autistic and other special-needs programs, resulting in fewer educational programs overall and -- most tragically -- further pitting the needs of one segment of our school population against those of another segment. The result, if no help is forthcoming, is likely to be increased class size in all grades and, in the future, deeper cuts.

The new data about autism add urgency to the plea from my school district and thousands of others that special-education funding be at the front of the public debate about serving the education of all children.

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