Transportation Costs of Special Education

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS

Kids on School Bus --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Kids on School Bus — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

When the federal government passed legislation for IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – Public Law 94-142) they knew they were laying the groundwork for an enormous sea change in the way schools would manage their special education services. They could not have accurately estimated the enormous bureaucracy and costs to school districts that would follow.

The law consists of four parts:

  • Part A lays out the basic foundation for the rest of the act
  • Part B lays out the educational guidelines for school children 3-21 years of age
  • Part C recognizes the need for identifying and reaching very young children with disabilities
  • Part D describes national activities to be undertaken to improve the education of children with disabilities

The devil is in the details, and IDEA Part B Regulations: 34 CFR 300.16(b)(14) is where the details live. For example, transportation includes “travel to and from school and between schools, travel in and around school buildings,” and “specialized equipment (such as special or adapted buses, lifts and ramps) if required… for a student with a disability.” The IEP must include the type of vehicle, specific equipment, circumstances under which transportation will be provided, pick-up and drop-off points, personnel who will be involved and goals and objectives for the transportation.”1

The costs of preparing for and providing transportation to special education children grow every year. In Buffalo, NY when I was a young SPED teacher, students called the little yellow buses for SPED kids “The Cheese.” It’s a reference, of course, to the color of the buses—identical to Velveeta. It was a pejorative term and many older children avoided using the buses at all costs to avoid stigma.

Each bus is specially equipped with lifts and other seat alterations to accommodate wheelchairs and other equipment required for student safety. Then there are the specialized vans. As medical science improves the outcomes of early term pregnancies, enrollment of children with complex medical conditions who attend regular public schools increases. In schools, we see children with breathing tubes and other elaborate medical support devices in special classrooms all in the interest of providing education in the “least restrictive environment,” as required by law.empty school bus

The part that gets expensive is one that has been challenged in court on many occasions. Let’s say a student living in Smallville has an extremely complicated medical condition that requires medical care 24/7 that the school district cannot provide on its own. The town must pay the costs of transporting the child to a town that does. I can recall cases where students were transported 30-40 miles each way to facilities with specialized support for complex situations. Therefore, the student is on the bus much of the day, which may require a specially trained aide to attend at all times. It’s hugely expensive and sets up a situation where districts must decide whether to provide the transportation or create a facility that supports those special needs.

In recent years, Massachusetts districts spent on average six percent of their total operating expenditures and 33 percent of their total special education expenditures on out-of-district special education placements. The average outplacement cost for private day programs is just under $51,000 per year, and for public programs in collaboratives the cost is just under $32,000 per year.2

Private residential programs cost an average of $105,000 per year. Districts spend more for transportation to private day schools, at roughly $9,600 per pupil per year on average. These costs are rising. States are stepping up to help districts support the costs by creating Circuit Breaker funds, but I have to wonder if the system is sustainable. 

Tough decisions need to be made at IEP meetings, and districts are placed in an awkward situation, looking like a bad guy if they don’t provide elaborate services for these children. The children are ours and we can’t turn our backs, but we all face challenges coming up with solutions.

Resources for your consideration:

Let me know how your school or district manages transportation costs.

1 Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, http://www.spannj.org/publications/transportation_pub.htm

2 Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, March 2009. Office of Strategic Planning, Research, and Evaluation


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Testing for Special Education Students

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS

Last time, I talked about blended learning environments for special education classrooms. With this learning model, we might want to talk about testing for our special needs children; are there new technologies that help teachers work with Common Core State Standards (CCSS) at testing time?

iStock_000016212768XSmall

I remember in the late 90’s when we were starting to embrace learning standards and develop new high-stakes tests. We heard a loud shriek throughout the land from teachers and parents who were sure their special needs children were going to be relegated to academic Siberia and required to take the same tests as “regular” children. It was a justifiable shriek; it seemed no one had really thought about this thorny issue, at least not very thoroughly.

We’ve calmed down since then, and now realize that requiring special needs students to take and pass high-stakes tests is just the equivalent of raising standards and expectations for all students, and providing the least restrictive environment—which is always a good thing. We’ve developed accommodations for children who need extra support at test time.

According to the law1

Testing accommodations are neither intended nor permitted to:

  • alter the construct of the test being measured or invalidate the results
  • provide an unfair advantage for students with disabilities over students taking tests under standardized conditions
  • substitute for knowledge or abilities that the student has not attained

The testing accommodations most frequently required by students as indicated in their IEP’s are:

  • flexibility in scheduling/timing
  • flexibility in the setting used for the administration of assessments
  • changes in the method of presentation
  • changes in the method of response

The key here is “in the IEP.” We have found ways to include many accommodations for special needs children in their IEP’s. We have struggled to find methods of assistance that don’t alter the tests or invalidate the results.

The NCEO (National Center for Educational Outcomes) provides a helpful bibliography of research-tested accommodations for testing. They also provide a nice description of differences among accommodations and discussions on test validity and reliability. There is considerable variability among states for the development of accommodations. Over time, states have developed alternate assessments that align with alternate state standards. We have also struggled with providing support for ELL students who have special needs.

teacher little girl

Where does technology step in to help us out with all these delicate balancing acts? A practical discussion of different ways classrooms can manage accommodations can be found at http://drscavanaugh.org/assistive/technology_accommodations.htm.

Teachervision has been one of my favorite sites over the years. They apply teacher speak to most of the ideas they present, and this article on assistive technology for students with mild disabilities is an example of that. Adaptive technologies may or may not be carried over into the testing environment. Remember the IEP? It may be allowed in the IEP, but here are some resources to help you sort this out.

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) provides some guidance on using adaptive technologies for testing. PARCC is a group of states working together to develop a set of assessments that measure whether students are on track to be successful in college and their careers.

But, I digress. There are as many organizations, companies and others who are interested in creating and providing testing materials and guidance as there are stars in the sky, and for obvious reasons. There is a great deal of money to be made. Rather than insert my opinions about this, I’ll provide you with some (hopefully) unbiased resources to help districts with assistive technology make decisions as they relate to testing.

Education Week

University of Texas at Austin (study)

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

Wikipedia on CAT

One Parent’s Opinion (NY Times)

Indiana University (Assistive Technology and Assessment Center)

Let me know how your district has evolved on the subject of testing and the use of assistive technologies.

1Text taken from: http://www.p12.nysed.gov/specialed/publications/policy/testaccess/guidance.htm, New York State Education Department.


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