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


Grant Name: Foundation Grants

Funded By: Safeway Foundation

Description: The Safeway Foundation supports nonprofit organizations whose mission is aligned with our four priority areas: Hunger Relief, Education, Health and Human Services and Assisting People with Disabilities.

Program Areas: After-School, Arts, Community Involvement/Volunteerism, Disabilities, Early Childhood, General Education, Health/PE, Homeless, Math, Reading, Safe/Drug-Free Schools, Science/Environmental, Social Studies, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), Technology

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Email: Christy.Duncan-Anderson@safeway.com

Website: Safeway Foundation

Availability: All States​

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Are You Out of Compliance in Your SPED Classroom?

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

teacher time

At some time or another, it seems inevitable that you will be out of compliance in your classroom. This happens in especially bad economic times. Cities and towns become incapable of raising tax revenues to cover all costs and everything suffers. The number one reason you might have compliance issues is in maintaining a certain number of students in your care at any given time.

As referrals and approvals come in, administrators must find a suitable placement for a child. Sometimes there’s just no room at the inn, so they assign the child to your classroom until another solution becomes available.

There are some things you can do to try to start solving these problems, at least in your own domain, but first you need to understand the law.

I have a special fondness for Wrightslaw online. It’s a site that has every possible SPED law spelled out and explained in plain English. It also points people to other resources that may help solve problems with staying in compliance of IDEA, Public Law 94-142 laws. It links to advocacy groups, attorneys who specialize in this complex corner of the law, and provides access to advocacy and Special Education Law libraries (to-die-for resources).

I could spend weeks reading all the articles and papers on this site and never truly have a complete understanding of the laws for our special education students. I recommend surveying this site; it has a good search engine if you have specific questions about how to stay in compliance in your classroom.

girl classroomThe numbers of students in your care is pretty basic. All the regulations adhere to a basic premise that we are providing the LRE (Least Restrictive Environment) for special ed. students. There is a legal definition of this concept, but we all know what it means. We need to include SPED students as much as possible in classrooms for all children. Students are no longer shuttled into a separate self-contained room or school and forgotten. There are still self-contained classes, but the rules around placement are very strict and must be followed to the letter.

When I am out of compliance in student count, the first thing I do is look at the class list in its totality. Can I prioritize my class list? This sounds barbaric, but there are always students who may have been in SPED classrooms too long and it is in their best interests to have their IEPs changed with parent input. Graduating (phasing) a student out of SPED services is hard to do, so be prepared for a fight. People (parents) become happy with extra care situations for their children. I always work with district SPED officials and my school principal. I can be a squeaky wheel, and if I keep at it, students can be phased out of my classrooms. Call IEP meetings and review each situation thoroughly to try to keep your room in compliance.

In a resource room, you cannot exceed five students per instructor. There are also rules for paraprofessionals; can a child be assigned a personal aide (through the IEP and team meeting process)? We are all aware of situations when keeping it to five students is just not feasible and the student count in resource rooms swells to try to absorb the overflow. There can be acceptable temporary arrangements. Self-contained classrooms are generally eight students with a full time teacher and one paraprofessional.

You are probably questioning my numbers. Actually, so am I. As I tried to research this issue, I came across different guidelines in different states. The best description of these rules can be found on Wrightslaw:

Is There a Legal Definition of Self Contained Classroom?

There is no legal definition of “self-contained classroom” in the federal statute.

It is suggested that you defer to your state special education offices for guidance.

We all know a classroom that is out of compliance. We know what it looks like, how it’s not functioning and that we should do something about it when we can.

Some resources to help us all stay up to date:

NCLB No Child Left Behind

IDEA 2004 (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)

NASET – National Association of Special Ed Teachers

Teachervision – practical everyday things to use in your classroom.

Special Education Guide

Let us know if you have a class out of compliance and the plans you are developing to fix it.


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Funded By: Autism Speaks

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Program Areas: After-School, Arts, Community Involvement/Volunteerism, Disabilities, Early Childhood, Family Services, General Education, Health/PE, Library, Math, Reading, Safe/Drug Free Schools, Science/Environmental, Social Studies, Special Education, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), Technology, Vocational

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