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Special Education Spending Reduction To National Median Could Save Districts $10 Billion: Study

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SPECIAL EDUCATION SPENDING
In this photo taken Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, Matthew Asner walks his son Will, 9, who is autistic, to the Nestle Avenue Elementary School in the Tarzana district of Los Angeles. | AP

A study released Wednesday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has found that if high-spending public school districts reduced their special education staffing levels to align with the national median, the country could save $10 billion annually.

The study, authored by Managing Director at the District Management Council and former school superintendent Nathan Levenson, analyzed information -- including staffing patterns and spending -- from 1,411 public school districts representing 30 percent of the nation’s K-12 schoolchildren.

From there, Levenson’s team reduced the sample into 10 pairs of comparable districts in five states — Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio and Texas. In each pair, one district spent less on special education but boasted higher achievement levels, as measured by scores on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). On average, the higher-achieving districts within the pairs placed 25 percent more special education pupils at the proficient level, while their lower-achieving counterparts spent 22 percent more on special ed, when adjusted for total student enrollment.

Overall, the study determined that spending and staffing for special education varies considerably more than it does for regular education, and this wide variation primarily stems from differences in staffing levels among districts, even when total enrollments are held constant.

According to the study, the “vast majority” of special education spending in districts goes toward staff, which represents as much as 95 percent of total special ed costs in some locations, and rarely less than 70 percent. Some districts employ nearly three times more special ed teachers -- per thousand students -- than others, not to mention many districts employ additional paraprofessionals like teachers’ aides and specialists.

Ultimately, Levenson calculated that districts with above-average special education staffing would save over $10 billion a year collectively if they were to reduce their staff to keep with the national norm.

In order to improve special education quality and efficiency, the author maintains that districts should focus on hiring more effective teachers, instead of simply more personnel including teachers, specialists, aides, etc. He also rejects the notion that more spending equals higher academic achievement.

According to Levenson’s report, there are federal law barriers that prevent officials from making special education more cost effective. For instance, the “maintenance of effort” provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) prohibits districts from considering cost when selecting services and interventions provided under a disabled child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). As such, the costs are not shared with the staff making special education decisions, thereby impeding them from choosing the more efficient option.

Levenson outlines four additional policy recommendations for improving special education outcomes and efficiency — three at the federal/state level, and one at the local level.

  • An end to maintenance of effort requirements.
  • Preserving and strengthening the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s (ESEA) subgroup accountability and reporting, including those provisions pertaining to students with special needs. While the current accountability mechanisms of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) have many shortcomings and unintended consequences, it is important not to throw out the baby with the bath water. It is critical to measure the achievement of students with disabilities and hold districts accountable, lest we return to complacency regarding low achievement.
  • Permitting greater flexibility in the use of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funds.
  • At the local level, that districts carefully manage pupil loads for special education teachers.

“Special-education spending can’t be exempt from efforts to improve educational outcomes and efficiency,” Fordham Institute President Chester E. Finn, Jr. said in a statement. “Kids with special needs deserve better and districts literally can’t afford not to do better.”

The Fordham report comes after July Senate findings reporting that sequestration, set to take effect January 2013, would cut a combined $2.7 billion over 10 years from Title I funds, state grants for special education and Head Start public pre-school programs. An estimated 10,000 special education workers would be laid off as a result.

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