Maine Schools in Focus: The Big Squeeze — Paying for Special Education Services

Editor: Gordon Donaldson

Special education is one of the fastest-growing cost centers in Maine school districts. It is THE fastest-growing LARGE cost-center: per-pupil spending for special education grew 37 percent between 2006 and 2013. By comparison, spending for regular instruction grew by 17 percent during that period.

Our investment in these services is taking a larger and larger portion of our school budgets.

  • In 2006, statewide special education spending was 14.6 percent of all K-12 spending (not counting debt service);
  • In 2013, it consumed 16.2 percent.

What is contributing to these growing costs?

More Special Needs. Maine schools and health professionals report higher numbers of children are entering our schools with a growing range of learning challenges. Many districts also report that the educational, psycho-emotional, and physical challenges of children are more severe, requiring specialized services beyond the typical capabilities of the district’s special education staff.

More Specialized Programs. More specialized programs now exist to address these challenges. Many are self-contained “behavior” or “life skills” programs. More children require “one-on-one aides” to work with them throughout the school day. The cost of transporting children to these programs, many of which are located centrally within regions, is substantial and growing.

Severely Reduced Federal/State Funding. Maine districts carry more and more of the financial responsibility for these growing costs. In 1975, when special education became federal law, nearly all costs were borne by the federal and state governments. Federal support to districts has been flat-funded since 2005; with inflation, that means federal support has declined significantly. State funding has not been able to fill the resulting gap, creating an increasing burden on local taxpayers.

Children with special needs and their families deserve the best educational services we can provide. This is the law and it’s ethically the right thing to do. But Mainers face two enormous challenges here: providing those services and paying for them. How does a school district provide appropriate services for every child, across the spectrum of learning challenges their students face? How do Mainers pay for these services without eroding services to other children?

Providing Effective Services. Maine schools, by and large, are very effective with many, many children with special needs. With those experiencing moderate to severe challenges, however, access to specialized programs and highly skilled staff can be a huge problem. Schools outside metro areas and market towns, in particular, struggle to make appropriate, affordable placements. Out-of-district placements are often very expensive and require costly and sometimes difficult-to-arrange transportation.

Paying for Effective Services. The challenge of paying for services affects all Maine districts and communities. The withdrawal of federal and state funds over the 40-year history of PL94-142 and its successors promises little relief. Maine districts (and especially the smaller and more rural ones) can experience large fluctuations in special education costs as children with special needs move in and out of their schools. Low-subsidy districts are particularly vulnerable, as they fund more of their special education costs than do most other districts.

The challenge, then, is three-fold:

1. Assisting Maine communities financially to pay for the growing costs of special services and to offset the impacts of this spending on the rest of their school budgets. State-level planning and action are required.

2. Assisting Maine communities financially to handle unexpected and fluctuating increases in the costs of special services. Current policy requires districts to pay up-front costs of expensive programming. State and federal “cushion” funding for unforeseen costs within budgetary cycles should be more available.

3. Assisting all districts to access effective, affordable special services in order to address the growing costs of those services and staff. School districts are hard-pressed to create new special services, either alone or collectively. MDOE, Child Development Services, and regional service providers can, together, fill these gaps.

Sources: MDOE ( ; National Center for Educational Statistics (; MDOE Office of Special Services.


Maine Schools in Focus is intended to share information that stimulates thinking, planning, and action to fulfill the mission of Maine’s preK-12 schools. Submissions must present ideas and data relevant to schooling in Maine and pose questions and suggest avenues for policy and action. They must be limited to 650 words.

Contact: Gordon Donaldson at