While the number of children with special needs rose gradually over the last decade, the cost of educating them climbed faster, reflecting what experts say are increasingly complex disabilities and the cost of private programs sometimes provided at public expense.

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While the number of children with special needs rose gradually over the last decade, the cost of educating them climbed faster, reflecting what experts say are increasingly complex disabilities and the cost of private programs sometimes provided at public expense.

The number of students classified as having special needs grew 9 percent over the past decade in Massachusetts, from 150,000 to about 163,600 today, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

But special education spending statewide climbed 35 percent just between 2004, when the state changed the way it accounts for such costs, and 2010, the most recent year available.

All other school spending grew at a slower pace, or 24 percent, according to state figures.

Educating students with special needs now takes up one in five public education dollars statewide. As overall school funding grows tighter, this creates a sometimes uncomfortable tension between needed special services and other school priorities.

“The impact of that with all the cuts is it just means further declines in the regular education budget,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

The state is trying to change how some schools approach special education, according to Marcia Mittnacht, state special education director.

For example, the state is working with schools to develop more services for struggling students in the regular classroom when appropriate, rather than sending them to separate or out-of-district programs, Mittnacht said.

Historically, schools leaned toward sending students with significant disabilities or behavioral issues elsewhere, she said. That sometimes includes private programs to which school districts are required to pay tuition if they cannot meet a student's needs locally.

“The more schools change from that mindset, I think the more you’ll see costs going down,” Mittnacht said.

Thomas Hehir, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recently released a study that found class and racial disparities in special education placements in some districts.

These are not new challenges for Massachusetts.

In 2001, Dr. David Urion of Children’s Hospital Boston co-authored a report that tied rising costs more to the evolving needs of special needs children than to school or district policy.

The report pointed to advances in neonatal medicine that have allowed a growing percentage of children who were born prematurely to survive. But a greater number of those children often have medical complications and neurological disabilities, the study said.

Some of these students require far more intensive or complex services than students might have received a generation ago.

“The kids that are in special education now are not the same kids that were there 15, 20 years ago,” said Jim Major, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Approved Private Schools, which represents private special needs programs.

That trend is still happening today, said Urion, who recently updated his report. The study also pointed to the deinstitutionalization of many handicapped children in the past and rising rates of childhood poverty and socioeconomic stress on families.

Other experts point to an explosion of children diagnosed with autism and related disorders recently, as well as other children with more complex behavioral issues or difficulties learning.

But state and federal lawmakers have done little to answer a decade-old call in Urion’s report to majorly rethink how they help school districts fund special education amid these changes.

“The fundamentally depressing thing from my perspective is that nothing much changed,” said Urion, director of education in the neurology department at Children’s.

In fact, the state cut its special education circuit breaker program, which reimburses districts a portion of extraordinarily high costs, during the recession. While much of the cut has since been reversed, a coalition of school and parent groups is calling on the state to boost funding for the program more than $20 million next year.

Meanwhile, the federal government has never lived up to a promise 40 years ago to cover 40 percent of the excess cost of educating students with special needs.

“The brunt of it still is falling on the local schools to fund out of their own resources,” said Rich Robison, executive director of the Federation for Children with Special Needs and a member of the Sudbury School Committee.

Here’s a breakdown of how special education spending has grown statewide recently:

- In-district special needs costs, including teachers, rose about 38.5 percent between fiscal 2004 and 2010, totaling $1.4 billion that year, according to state data.

- Schools that lack appropriate local programs sometimes send students to other districts or to collaborative programs run by multiple districts. Tuitions to such programs rose 25 percent from 2004 to 2010, totaling $227.6 million that year.

- Special needs students sometimes are sent to private programs when no public program is deemed appropriate. Private and out-of-state tuitions, which are regulated by the state, rose about 30 percent from fiscal 2004 to 2010, totaling $422.2 million that year. Major said private tuitions are not keeping pace with inflation.

- Altogether, special education expenditures rose statewide from $1.5 billion in 2004 to $2.1 billion in 2010. Overall school spending, including special needs costs, rose from $8.3 billion to $10.5 billion in the same timeframe.

Mittnacht said Massachusetts has an unusually high number of children placed in programs outside their home districts.

“We have more than almost every other state,” she said. “I can say that the belief that private special education schools are better is stronger here than it is most other places.”

But sometimes out-of-district placements are a necessity. While in-district or public collaboratives can be more economical, setting them up requires an upfront investment that can be difficult to justify, observers said.

It also can be difficult for districts to tailor a program to one or two students’ unique needs.

“It’s not as easy as just saying the locals can go ahead and set up their own programs or collaborative,” said Scott, head of the superintendents association.

Robison said many parents would rather see their child stay close to home if possible.

“They want to do what they have to do for their child to be successful in education,” he said. “If the school can’t meet the needs of that child, for some families it’s really a difficult choice to determine that their child needs to go away from home – if not just for a day, overnight.”

Mittnacht said more students struggle in the traditional school model – working quietly for a sustained time under the direction of a single adult.

Schools that are able to find ways to work with students in smaller groups and tailor support services for those who need them often classify fewer kids with relatively low-level issues with special needs and have fewer out-of-district placements, according to Mittnacht.

“I think the more schools get involved and adopt models that provide some tiered systems of supports, the more likely they are to manage the kids,” she said.

(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-4424 or driley@wickedlocal.com.)