According to the Alabama Department of Education (ADE), the state will spend as much as it needs to in order to provide education for every child, even those with the most severe special needs.

“There are certain students who are in very high need circumstances,” said Michael Sibley, the ADE director of communication. “Students who require special equipment just to function, specialized treatment centers and those who need certain machines to either breath or function. There are certain cases where the tab is going to go really really high, so there is no [maximum] that can be spent on a particular child.”

Sibley said the ADE’s foundation program provides a base rate of $5,916 per month for every student in public schools in Alabama. More funding can be provided by the federal, state or local governments depending on other factors, such as where the child is from.

Though there is no data on the specific cost of an average child with special needs, it is safe to say that it is typically higher than general education students. Depending on the severity of the child’s needs, special equipment, aides or other extra expenses may be necessary.

Children with special needs also have the option of remaining in school for at least three additional years. They are allowed to stay in public schools until they graduate on a general education pathway or until they turn 21. 

According to ADE program director for special education services DaLee Chambers, special needs students who turn 21 during the school year are allowed to finish out that year.

On top of the funding school districts get for each child, school districts might also receive funding through Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is a federal law.

Chambers said that in the case that a school district is struggling to accommodate children with special needs, they can apply for supplemental funds through the ADE. 

Chambers said choosing how to allocate resources for special needs is a responsibility of local school systems. As long as they abide by federal guidelines pertaining to special needs, school systems have the authority to make financial decisions.

Options for parents with children with special needs

A parent of a child with special needs can send their child to the local public school system where they live. There are also public charter schools, which usually have a specialization in a specific subject matter but aren’t typically explicitly focused on children with special needs.

Parents are also free to homeschool or send their children to private school. Chambers said there are private schools that specifically teach children with special needs.

In public school, a child’s Individual Education Program (IEP) may deem it necessary for students with particular special needs to attend another school inside their school district than the one they are zoned for. School districts can also contract with other school districts, which might be able to better serve certain children with special needs.

The Allan Cott School is a special treatment center that is privately run but contracts with the ADE and local school boards. It also has students who attend at a cost. The school specializes both in special needs and emotional needs by providing a high student-to-staff ratio that is not found in fully public schools.

According to Ken Oliver, the cost of special education is higher at a school like Allan Cott because of the large staff of professionals. Oliver is the chief executive officer of Glenwood, Inc., the nonprofit that oversees the Allan Cott School.

Oliver said that the pure educational cost for an Allan Cott student is likely between $40,000 to $50,000 annually. He said the school also houses 25 students and is open 12 months out of the year.

How public special needs programs work

In public school, a student’s education is tailored specifically to their needs through an IEP if general education is deemed unsuitable.

According to Chambers, the expectation of an IEP is that it keeps students included as much as possible in the “least restrictive environment.” The student is only removed from the general education classroom when their academic needs can’t be met there.

“The general education classroom would be the least restrictive,” Chambers said. “A hospital or home setting would be more on the more restrictive side. We try to keep all kids with disabilities in the least restrictive environment with the assumption that they can be educated in the general education classroom and, if they can’t, then we determine how close to that least restrictive environment we can keep them and still meet their needs.” 

When considering an IEP, a team of faculty meets with the parents of the student to decide if an IEP is necessary and, if so, what accommodations the student requires.

Chambers said there are 13 disability categories under the IDEA which might qualify a student for an IEP. Each category has its own minimum qualifications. 

The IEP team will evaluate the student. If they meet the qualifications, they will determine whether the student’s needs impact their education and whether the student requires specifically designed instruction. If so, they will assign the student an IEP, which looks different for every student since it is individualized.

Chambers said that even children with the most severe special needs receive academic instruction. There is no option for schools or school districts to waive academic instruction for any student.

“There are probably situations where certain kids get more out of instruction than other kids, but there's not ever any instances where we don’t attempt academics,” Chambers said.

Most students with IEPs work toward a general education curriculum, but alternative achievement standards are set for students with cognitive disabilities, which only a small percentage of children have. 

IEPs can also establish functional goals depending on the student’s age and needs. These could be from self-help and time management skills to behavioral objectives. Older children sometimes receive transition services which help them look for jobs and live independently when they leave public school. 

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