California programs for students with learning disabilities have kept drawing money from shrinking general education funds even as federal funding has remained the same, according to a Legislative Analyst's Office report released last week.
The state requires that public schools provide special support for disabled students. The money for those programs comes from a mix of local, state and federal funding, but the study found that average annual costs to educate a student with disabilities - about 10 percent of the state's student body - are more than double those of a non-disabled child.
In California, where funding for special education depends on the number of general education students, as enrollment decreases so does revenue.
Lake Tahoe Unified School District hasn't escaped the additional special education costs. In fact, district educators have coped with those changes for many years now, LTUSD Chief Financial Officer Debra Yates said.
"For us, our decreasing enrollment has been diminishing. The hits we were taking were huge. But the significant hits have already occurred. No reductions are desired or easy to deal with, but with regard to that particular situation for the district, the state's report is a bit late," Yates said.
Six years ago, LTUSD faced a $185,159 fund reduction because enrollment dropped so sharply. In 2012-13, that decease in revenue was less than $45,000. Administrators have learned to weather the cuts, but it's challenging to maintain the amount of money going to special education as the general fund shrinks.
Special education departments are required to spend an equal or greater amount of money on programs for disabled children each year, LTUSD Director of Special Services Marie Meagher said.
"Overall we have to send reports to show the state that we're spending the same if not more on special education as last year. It's like the right hand isn't talking to the left. We're dropping general education enrollment, so the money coming into the district drops, but then we have this maintenance of effort," Meagher said.
Special education enrollment has also decreased, but not proportionally and educators still work with about 1,000 disabled youth over the course of a school year.
Meagher said that while there are other pots of money she can draw from when it comes to special services, districts across the state have had to take on more special education costs.
Districts paid 32 percent of special education costs in 2005, according the the state report. That number grew to 39 percent six years later, and might have increased even more in the past two years without fewer federal stimulus dollars.
Finding more sustainable funding for special services might be made easier if teachers were less burdened with legal paperwork or if California loosened restrictions on special education instructor qualifications, Meagher said.
It would also help if the federal government provided more funding for the programs, but Meagher isn't hopeful. Since 1975 when special education was first developed, federal funds have never completely covered the services.
"Would it help if it was even increased? Yes. But with the fiscal times as they are now, it doesn't seem like that's going to happen," she said.