In a response to the concerns of school officials about spiraling special education costs, Minnesota's Legislative Auditor is recommending more state funding and steps to curb the increasing costs of those programs.
The auditor's report, released Wednesday, notes that special education is taking up an increasing part of school district budgets at a time when federal and state funds don't fully cover the $1.6 billion that schools spend on special education.
About 112,000 students in Minnesota, or 13 percent of the school population, received special education services during the 2010-2011 school year.
That represents an 11 percent increase from a decade ago, said Jody Hauer, a program evaluator in the auditor's office.
"We see the population of special education children rising at the same time that the full K-12 population is slightly decreasing," Hauer said.
Under federal law, any student who has a disability that affects their ability to learn is entitled to free special education programs. For some students that involves extra help with reading in a mainstream classroom. Others may need a staff member assigned to help them throughout the school day.
Hauer said the growing number of special education students is just one factor pushing up costs. Staffing is also a factor.
While the number of Minnesota students increased by 11 percent over a decade, the number of full-time special education staff increased by 25 percent.
The report recommends that lawmakers, the Department of Education and schools work together to reduce the cost of special education, but doesn't offer specific suggestions on how that could be done.
At the same time, the report recommends lawmakers find a way to send more money to schools to close the $600 million gap between federal and state funding for special education, and what schools spend on the programs.
Minnesota districts spend more an average of $600 per special education student per year to fill the funding gap. In his budget request this session, Gov. Mark Dayton is asking for an increase of $125 million for special education.
The funding shortfall has led districts to use money from their general budgets on special education, money they could otherwise use to reduce class sizes, or invest in new technology, Hauer said.
"The legislature should consider options to reduce school districts reliance on the general education funding that they've been using to pay special education expenses," she said.
Hauer admits fixing that problem won't be easy, and will require lawmakers to shift money from other areas, or raise revenue.
The report also found that Minnesota occasionally goes above and beyond what is required by the federal government.
For example, federal officials require a type of student evaluation be done in 60 days. Minnesota requires it be done in 30 days.
That led some lawmakers to ask if savings could be found by easing certain special education mandates from the state.
Minnesota's Commissioner of Education, Brenda Cassellius, cautioned lawmakers that those mandates are in place to help students to ensure that the system does not fail students with special needs.
"We're open to finding ways to reduce the burden, but also responsibly so that students and families have what they need and so that students get the best education possible."
Any discussion of pulling back on special education mandates is troubling to advocates of disabled children.
Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, wants lawmakers and education officials to concentrate on ways to make the special education system better and more efficient.
"How can we partner with community organizations in the mental health area or even autism experts?" Abderholden asked. "Maybe there are other ways to bill Medicaid for the services provided in the school, maybe there's different ways to arrange personnel."
The legislative auditor's report directs lawmakers and the state Department of Education do something along those lines.
It recommends looking at potential changes to the special education system, and then figuring out how they might affect school's budgets and student performance.