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Rick Tschida was on his high school robotics team in St. Paul and plans to be a computer programmer when he finishes college. His father calls his IQ "way over the top."

Tschida, 19, was diagnosed with a mild form of autism in second grade and still receives special education services a year after finishing high school. But unless he tells someone about his condition, he said, "they don't know."

He is one of thousands of disabled students in Minnesota who would not qualify for special education in many other parts of the country. And his case shows why the state's unusually loose eligibility rules for such programs are boosting special education enrollments here even as they are declining nationally.

To state education officials, the numbers reflect a progressive, caring approach to children with special needs that other states will emulate.

"I think we have a lot to be proud of in our state," said Barbara Troolin, the department's director of special education.

But the issue is engulfing parents, advocates for the disabled and local school leaders in a contentious debate over how much Minnesota can afford to spend on special education at a time when classroom budgets face serious strains. All voices in the fight are certain they are acting in the best interests of Minnesota schools and their students.

Some educators say struggling students are getting pushed too quickly into expensive special education programs before trying less costly options that could help students.

"It's no one's fault," said Lynne Kovash, superintendent of schools in Moorhead. "It's just that we want to do so much for our students."

In Minnesota, students can qualify for special education even if their disabilities do not interfere with their school work. They can be declared disabled if their handicaps affect their social functioning or if they suffer from disorders — including anxiety — that are not included in federal disability definitions.

In all, Minnesota has at least two dozen rules that broaden access to special education in ways that exceed federal requirements, state records show.

Attorney Jerry Von Korff, a longtime school board member in St. Cloud, estimated that his district spends at least $1 million annually to meet state special education rules that surpass the federal government's. That is money he said he would rather spend on replacing textbooks, some of which are 20 years old.

"Either give us the full amount of money that special education costs or take us back to the federal standards," said Von Korff, whose district was forced to cover $8.6 million in unfunded special education costs last year. "Don't make us do more and then not fund it."

A fivefold increase

Fourteen young adults are sitting in red plastic chairs inside a St. Paul special ed class, talking about their futures.

One wants to work in a bookstore. Another hopes to become a doctor. Tschida, who impatiently bounces his leg in the front row, brags that he recently finished a computer design class and is taking another course this fall at a local college. He said the biggest barrier to landing work is his lack of a diploma, which he can't get until he finishes a special ed program aimed at helping him live independently.

"I'm impressed," said Liz Keenan, the district's special education director, who dropped in to check on the class' progress. "What you are doing is phenomenal."

The class, Keenan later explained, is full of "high-functioning" students who probably would not qualify for special education in other states. She estimates that half of the 485 children identified with autism in St. Paul would fail to meet tighter definitions used elsewhere.

Other states define autism as a disorder that "significantly" affects a student's behavior, but Minnesota considers it a condition that can range from "mild to severe."

Those guidelines have given Minnesota the nation's highest autism rate in schools. A Star Tribune analysis of enrollment data shows that one of every 62 students in Minnesota public schools has been labeled autistic — twice the national average. Since 2001, more than 12,000 additional children have been identified with autism in Minnesota, a fivefold increase.

While the number of students with autism is growing nationally, "there is nothing we know about autism that would explain such a high rate," said Michael Gerber, an education professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara who has published more than 100 research papers on special education. He called Minnesota's rate "outlandish."

The number of kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has also grown.

Jan Bootsma, director of special education services in Minnetonka, said the state's vague rules are inflating those numbers. She was surprised — and concerned — when one of Minnetonka's two middle schools designated nine students as ADHD last year and the other found just two students with the condition.

"Who's right? It's hard to say," she said, adding that she brought staff members together to come up with a common interpretation of the subjective criteria.

John Klaber, retired special ed director in Mankato who now heads the Minnesota Administrators for Special Education, said he talks to school psychologists all the time who are highly suspicious of ADHD diagnoses given the fact "sometimes almost all the kids in a class" have one.

In St. Paul, it all adds up to 18 percent of students receiving special education services, well above the national average of 12 percent. Keenan, a former special education director in suburban Milwaukee, said such statistics would set off alarms in Wisconsin.

"In Minnesota, nobody questions it," she said.

Forced to fight

If parents want special education services for their children, they often start with PACER, a nonprofit that has become one of the nation's most influential advocates for the disabled.

The group sponsors training sessions for parents on how to challenge school districts that deny special ed services. A phone call from one of the Bloomington center's 70 staff members can prompt schools to reconsider, and workers sometimes accompany parents to meetings to make sure students get the help they're entitled to under state and federal law.

Paula Goldberg, who co-founded PACER in 1977 and remains its executive director, said Minnesota's progressive approach has helped many students who would not have made it through school without the extra help.

"I think that is why parents push so hard to get services, because we all want our children to be as successful as they can be," Goldberg said. "Some students become taxpayers. They can live independently or semi-independently. … That is the success of special education."

For instance, she recently heard from parents of a boy who was initially denied services even though he suffered from emotional and behavioral problems. He was on the verge of dropping out of high school. But after the family pressed its case, the district agreed to give him help. Goldberg said the boy graduated from high school, took advanced training classes and found work as an auto mechanic.

"Minnesota has an important special education law, and we need to keep it," Goldberg said. "Maybe it costs a little more than other states, but we are lucky to be able to do that."

Minnesota was one of the first states to mandate special education services in 1957, nearly two decades before federal laws went into effect.

Department officials cited that history in 2008 when a state task force evaluated laws and rules that exceed federal requirements. In a letter to the task force, a state regulator said Minnesota "should continue to provide leadership in this arena and not be content merely to follow minimum federal protections."

In recent interviews, state education officials said Minnesota's eligibility rules are shaped by a broad coalition of school administrators, teachers, parents and other "stakeholders."

"We are part of the conversations — I wouldn't say we are driving the conversations," Troolin said.

Expensive battles

Special ed is an intensive program that gives students access to specialists, aides and teachers, all focused on a child's individual needs. Progress is reviewed quarterly, and if parents are unhappy with their child's education, they can file complaints with the state and force changes — rights that don't exist for parents of other students.

Students can also qualify for customized graduation requirements and extra time or other help on standardized tests.

"Being in special education gives a parent extra protections, extra security," said Klaber. "You've got extra teachers making sure Scott does his homework. And what's the bane of every middle school parent? Homework. What's not to like?"

If a child is denied special ed services, parents can request state intervention, bring in an outside advocate such as PACER or hire a private testing firm.

It can be an expensive battle. Administrators say it sometimes costs a district as much as $100,000 for a single dispute. Often, complaint records show, the state sides with the parents.

In St. Francis, the mother of a second-grader sought special education services for her daughter after a teacher reported that the girl, a top student, was sometimes "fidgety."

The mother, worried that she was misbehaving at home and leaving assignments until the last minute, had her tested by a psychologist, who diagnosed the girl with ADHD. In light of the girl's grades, however, the district decided in April 2012 that she did not need special education services.

The girl's mother challenged the district's decision. Two weeks after she filed a complaint with the state, school officials reversed course and granted her request. (The state later concluded that the student's behavior and academic performance did not indicate a need for special ed services.)

St. Francis Superintendent Ed Saxton declined to explain the district's about-face, but he said he sometimes backs down in such cases to avoid expensive legal battles.

"It's not about being right all the time," Saxton said. "It's about making sure you don't drain resources that could be used for educational purposes for a battle that you may or may not win. … The thing about special education is that at times it should be a logical conversation about services, but most of the time it is an emotional discussion about services."

In Minnesota, the average special education student costs taxpayers $22,144 last year, compared to $8,486 for a general education student.

The state and federal governments are supposed to pay more than 90 percent of special education costs, but funding shortfalls are forcing local school districts to cover a growing portion of the expenses. Last year, local districts paid $595 million in special ed costs, up from $345 million in 2001.

Once enrolled in special education, few Minnesota students ever leave it. In the 2010-11 school year, just 489 of Minnesota's 40,629 disabled students aged 14 to 21 transitioned to regular classrooms, a rate of 1.2 percent — the fourth lowest in the nation.

A different approach

Some educators are looking for alternatives to special ed.

In Wisconsin, state leaders are pushing hard to get schools to embrace an approach that could help all students, including those now considered disabled.

The system uses data to identify struggling students early and then targets them with extra help, which can be as simple as math lessons in small groups.

"It is focused on prevention and identifying what kids need, rather than finding kids and labeling them as broken," said Ed O'Connor, a consultant on the approach, known as Response to Intervention, or RTI, in Sun Prairie, Wis. "When you label them with a disability, you're giving them permission not to have high expectations."

O'Connor used the RTI system at a small school system outside Madison. The result, he said, was phenomenal: In just seven years, the district's percentage of children in special education dropped from 15 percent to 8 percent.

Under a new rule that takes effect Dec. 1, all Wisconsin schools must either implement RTI or put in place a comparable system. The state education department is spending $4.5 million this year to help get schools RTI training.

"Some people interpret our work to mean there is no need for special education," O'Connor said. "There is a place for that. But you can't serve large numbers of students with the most intense treatments."

In Minnesota, between 60 and 70 percent of districts also have used RTI, but support and oversight have been minimal. After legislators awarded a $1 million training grant in 2007, state funding for RTI disappeared.

It has been a frustrating experience for Kim Gibbons, who as executive director of Minnesota's St. Croix River Education District was awarded the grant to train other schools.

The money has long since run out, but Gibbons said she still fields two to three calls a week from schools inquiring about RTI.

Since first using it in 1995, Gibbons' district, which provides special ed services for six central Minnesota school districts, has seen a 50 percent drop in the number of students identified with learning disabilities, one of the most common diagnoses in special education. That has saved her district about $1 million per year, she said.

The key is early intervention, which often doesn't happen in special education, she said. Many disabled students are not identified until fourth or fifth grade.

"That's too late for many kids," she said. "The way to make special education better is to make regular education better." • 612-673-4132 • 612-673-4469