Minnesota's loose rules boost enrollment in special ed

Loose rules enable students who wouldn’t qualify in other states to get services, straining budgets.

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Rick Tschida told classmates the biggest barrier to finding work is his lack of a diploma, which he can’t get until he finishes a program aimed at helping him live independently.

Photo: RENÉE JONES SCHNEIDER • reneejones@startribune.com,

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Rick Tschida was on his high school robotics team in St. Paul and plans to be a computer programmer when he finishes college. His father calls his IQ “way over the top.”

Tschida, 19, was diagnosed with a mild form of autism in second grade and still receives special education services a year after finishing high school. But unless he tells someone about his condition, he said, “they don’t know.”

He is one of thousands of disabled students in Minnesota who would not qualify for special education in many other parts of the country. And his case shows why the state’s unusually loose eligibility rules for such programs are boosting special education enrollments here even as they are declining nationally.

To state education officials, the numbers reflect a progressive, caring approach to children with special needs that other states will emulate.

“I think we have a lot to be proud of in our state,” said Barbara Troolin, the department’s director of special education.

But the issue is engulfing parents, advocates for the disabled and local school leaders in a contentious debate over how much Minnesota can afford to spend on special education at a time when classroom budgets face serious strains. All voices in the fight are certain they are acting in the best interests of Minnesota schools and their students.

Some educators say struggling students are getting pushed too quickly into expensive special education programs before trying less costly options that could help students.

“It’s no one’s fault,” said Lynne Kovash, superintendent of schools in Moorhead. “It’s just that we want to do so much for our students.”

In Minnesota, students can qualify for special education even if their disabilities do not interfere with their school work. They can be declared disabled if their handicaps affect their social functioning or if they suffer from disorders — including anxiety — that are not included in federal disability definitions.

In all, Minnesota has at least two dozen rules that broaden access to special education in ways that exceed federal requirements, state records show.

Attorney Jerry Von Korff, a longtime school board member in St. Cloud, estimated that his district spends at least $1 million annually to meet state special education rules that surpass the federal government’s. That is money he said he would rather spend on replacing textbooks, some of which are 20 years old.

“Either give us the full amount of money that special education costs or take us back to the federal standards,” said Von Korff, whose district was forced to cover $8.6 million in unfunded special education costs last year. “Don’t make us do more and then not fund it.”

 

A fivefold increase

Fourteen young adults are sitting in red plastic chairs inside a St. Paul special ed class, talking about their futures.

One wants to work in a bookstore. Another hopes to become a doctor. Tschida, who impatiently bounces his leg in the front row, brags that he recently finished a computer design class and is taking another course this fall at a local college. He said the biggest barrier to landing work is his lack of a diploma, which he can’t get until he finishes a special ed program aimed at helping him live independently.

“I’m impressed,” said Liz Keenan, the district’s special education director, who dropped in to check on the class’ progress. “What you are doing is phenomenal.”

The class, Keenan later explained, is full of “high-functioning” students who probably would not qualify for special education in other states. She estimates that half of the 485 children identified with autism in St. Paul would fail to meet tighter definitions used elsewhere.

Other states define autism as a disorder that “significantly” affects a student’s behavior, but Minnesota considers it a condition that can range from “mild to severe.”

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  • Rick Tschida said having autism has not been a major factor in his life. “Usually, if I don’t tell someone I have it, they don’t know,” he said.

  • St. Paul administrator Liz Keenan said Minnesota’s loose eligibility rules mean that half of the students identified with autism in her district would not qualify for special education in other states.

  • Rick Tschida, who was diagnosed with a mild form of autism in elementary school, often uses his bicycle to make the 2-mile trip to special education classes in St. Paul.

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