The rising costs of special education are heavily impacting local school districts. For states that are prioritizing education reform, special education costs are compromising districts on adequately funding the implementation of the reform.

Policymakers often make mistakes while searching for ways of addressing rising costs. Two main factors are to blame for the increment of the expenses.

Factor one: policymakers point blame at schools. They have found that schools are funneling too many kids into special education programs as a way of reducing the burden on regular education classroom teachers.

Their move is pegged on addressing both learning and behavioral problems.

Factor two: policy makers highlight that increased advocacy from physicians and parents is having more kids go to special education programs an unnecessary move. 

Based on these factors, policymakers implore states to continue imposing financial disincentives for increasing special education populations.

The move is believed to have the disincentives force school districts to come up with more rigorous eligibility requirements. They, in turn, will force smaller special education enrollment, attracting lower special education spending from the states.

The two factors play only a small roll in the rising costs in special education enrollments, more significant causes have all but been ignored.

Studies conducted in more than ten states indicate that rising costs are not associated with school districts policies nor practices.

In the surveyed states, school district policies and practices proved to be more effective in containing and reducing the number of children placed in special education programs.

The rising costs were attributed to the increased number of students with special needs requiring more costly services. Unfortunately, the root causes of these increases are beyond the control of schools.

Causes such as deinstitutionalization of special needs children, advanced medical technologies, and privatization services can only be addressed at state and federal levels.

More contributing causes include economic and social factors such as the rising numbers of families undergoing social and financial stress and the increasing number of kids born into poverty.

Since the increment in special education enrollment reflects the increased need for students with special needs, the solutions that policymakers are making are leading to higher special needs education costs.

Overall, these are factors that are making it harder for enough funding to reach kids with more needs.

The no-win situation is contributing a problematic environment for both regular education students and special needs students whose interests are pitted against each other when lawmakers engage in funding debates.

The national data on special education state that based on the findings, the factors mentioned above are to blame for the increased costs and the number of special education students nationally.

The Reality of The Costs

For a majority of the states, special education components of the school education reform funding formula were built on the assumptions that school districts failed in containing rising costs.

They also identified more students than necessary as having special needs. Some elements of the formula created by policymakers were designed as disincentives to such practices.

Case in point; in the remaining areas apart from the special education, actual student enrollment is used in calculating state aid.

Additional allocations are provided based on the number of students in vocational or bilingual programs, and those hailing from low-income families.

On the other hand, special education allocations are based on a preset percentile of students attending special education programs which are set at lower rates than the state average.

Moreover, cost allocations providing services for special educations are set at lower levels than the actual costs.

The disincentives were put in place to ensure school districts are more rigorous in utilizing eligibility standards which encourage cost-effective student placements.

In spite of school districts’ best efforts of placing eligible student candidates in special education, costs continue rising since more students with special needs are being enrolled in schools.

Data provided by the Department of Education proves that special education spending rose from 17.2 percent in 1989-90 to 20.2 percent in 2000-01. It increased to $202 million in costs for the 2000-01 period.

Special education continues to eat into higher percentages of school districts budgets in the 2010-2020 decade.

Data presented shows that in as much as regular education expenditures declined from 52.3 percent to 47.7 percent, special education expenditures went up to 42 percent of the state funding in school district budgets.

Since the Education Reform Act was ratified in 1993, special education expenditures increased at higher rates than regular education in more than 80 percent of school districts nationwide.

Data shows that 56 percent of districts nationwide spent over 50 percent of the aid given by states on special education.

Economic and Social Factors

The rising costs in special education are also attributed to higher numbers of children living in poverty. Researchers continue documenting the correlation between poverty and special needs.

Findings show that all through the 1980s and 90s, the number of children brought up in poverty increased rapidly. The result was a widening economic gap between wealthy and low-income families.

Since the 1990s, the national poverty rate for kids under 6 remains above 20 percent. Poverty rates are also attributed to increased numbers of families going through social and economic stress.

Many school districts and communities witness increases in child abuse and neglect resulting from drug use and alcoholism. A lot of these dysfunctional family environments has seen higher numbers of children in need of special education services.


Policymakers need to go to the ground before coming up with solutions. Thorough investigations will aid in identifying real reasons why there are rising costs in special education.

School districts are doing the best they can to provide alternative services to separate special-need programs that require additional resources.

Students enrolling in schools with special needs should to be identified from an early age, and special education programs should be funded separately and at a higher level from regular education programs to achieve school reform effectively.