The Rights and Costs of Special-Needs Children
Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] and state law, districts are required to provide a free appropriate public education to youths with disabilities from birth to 21 years of age. And though districts and families are often at odds over what assistance is needed, it can include specialized instruction; daily or weekly speech, occupational or psychological therapies; or special schools for those with severe emotional issues.
The cost of providing these services can easily spiral, with districts spending tens of millions of dollars a year on special education, depending on the number of eligible students. District general funds are also tapped to augment state and federal dollars, which for years have not kept pace with needs.
But even when taking these realities into account, special education experts say resistance to paying for services is so ingrained among school districts that they will spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on attorney fees — amounts that in some cases dwarf the costs of the services sought — to deny or not reimburse families for the educational needs.
And though special education disputes are common throughout California and the nation, family attorneys and special education advocates say district legal resistance in Orange County is among the fiercest in the country.
“There is room for problem solving and compromise" when districts seek a balance, said Irvine-based Maureen Graves, a family attorney and founder of the California Association for Parent-Child Advocates.
“When school districts become obsessed with defending their original instructional plans, discrediting families and keeping parents in the dark, disputes escalate. Schools and families suffer,” she said.
Graves and other advocates say districts direct streams of funds to a small cadre of attorneys to fight families seeking special education services, which vary from tests costing a few thousand dollars to individual class aides to residential placement in highly sophisticated, out-of-state facilities.
Additionally, some local districts, including Garden Grove Unified, have refused to publicly disclose the costs, which an open-government expert says is a violation of state law.
Given that Baquerizo estimates her legal bills over the past five years alone were about $350,000, the district’s are likely far higher. The most recent battle was over about $14,000 in services annually and prior skirmishes have topped $50,000 in annual costs.