Students with special needs — ranging from mild learning disabilities to more severe physical problems — deserve to be educated to the best of their abilities. That’s why state and federal laws rightly require school districts to serve them.

Yet that worthy mandate often puts a strain on school district budgets. As a recent Star Tribune news story reported, the average annual cost for a general-education student is $8,486, compared with $22,144 for special-education kids. Students with the most serious disabilities can cost $100,000 or more.

For Minnesota, those costs have skyrocketed to $1.8 billion this year. That’s up 70 percent in the last decade, forcing many districts to divert revenues from general to special education. That’s not sustainable over time, nor is it fair to traditional students.

To strike a better balance, a recent state legislative auditor’s report suggested smart ways to address numerous “disincentives’’ that stand in the way of controlling costs. This week, legislative auditor Jim Nobles acknowledged the complexity of the problem and recommended improvements.

Minnesota school districts now cover 33 percent of special-education costs from their general budgets, amounting to a 40 percent increase during the last decade. About 56 percent of special-education costs are paid by the state, and another 11 percent are covered by federal funding.

Meeting the needs of physically, mentally and emotionally challenged students is one of the federal government’s most glaring unfunded mandates. Under federal law, states and school districts must provide educational services for students with special needs. When those rules were approved, the feds said they would cover about 40 percent of the costs, but have never lived up to that promise.

In his budget proposal, Gov. Mark Dayton recommends directing an additional $125 million to special education over the next two years. That would help, but districts would still have to pay about $475 million from their general coffers.

The auditor’s report says that more funding is needed, but also suggests ways to control costs. It found, for example, that about 75 percent of state special-education rules exceed what is required by federal regulations. And state statutes call for every district to have a special-education director, while there is no similar provision in federal law. The report recommends that the state analyze and possibly modify those policies.

State researchers said that some school leaders “over-provide’’ special services, arguing that giving in to parental demands can be less expensive than lawsuits. To address that concern, the state can do more to clarify differences in state and federal law and help educators understand exactly what they are obligated to provide.

Nobles also recommends more cost-sharing between districts. Nearly 19,000 special-ed kids attend school outside their home districts, but the district where they live must pay for their education. That gives the receiving school little incentive to control costs.

Though the costs and numbers of special-education kids have risen in Minnesota, they are falling nationally. Some experts attribute those declines to improvements in diagnosing students. When educators understand and address learning problems early, fewer students need special services.

As the legislative auditor points out, there are no simple solutions for balancing the educational needs of all kids and how best to pay for them.

It’s a challenge, but the auditor’s report offers important data that can help the system rein in its skyrocketing costs.


An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).