11/25/2013 12:59 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

3 Ways Districts Can Pay For Special Education Students: Report


With the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act floating in legislative limbo, a conservative think tank is providing states and school districts with alternative ways to pay for special education.

According to a policy brief released Monday by the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, funding systems for special education are outmoded and need to be fixed before the sweeping federal law should be updated.

"America's approach to the education of children with disabilities is antiquated, costly, and ineffective," the institute's president Checker Finn wrote in a foreword to the piece. "This ineffectual system is also very, very expensive. Yet for a host of reasons -- inertia, timidity, political gridlock, fear of litigation, fear of interest groups, ignorance, lack of imagination, and so on -- neither our education leaders nor our policy leaders have shown any inclination to modernize it."

When IDEA was passed in 1975, Finn wrote, it was "much needed." In 1970, only 1 in 5 students with disabilities attended school at all. But the law "remains stuck where it was in 1975." It's outmoded, he writes, because it is "input-driven, rule-bound, compliance-obsessed and inattentive to learning outcomes. It is sorely out of touch with an era oriented to academic standards and achievement." As most families with children in special education programs know, the process of determining what educational services and outcomes the law provides to students -- especially during a time of budget cuts -- can be contentious, and in some cases litigious.

And students with the highest needs, Finn asserts, can strain school budgets, especially in smaller districts, "putting pressure on the education of other children, causing fiscal distress, and giving rise to political discord."

Instead of addressing special education policy at the national level, the paper, authored by Matthew Richmond and Daniela Fairchild, recommends three, more local solutions, some of which are already being used in states. Richmond and Fairchild recommend creating "district cooperatives," in which school districts pool resources to develop the necessary capacity to educate high-needs students. The co-ops, they write, could take advantage of economies of scale.

They also recommend that schools use weighted criteria to determine per-student funding, instead of the more common system in which average student need determines funding levels. They propose a system of tiers based on students' diagnoses to allow for "a more rational and efficacious distribution of funds," so that districts with more high-need students can receive more money.

Third, they propose that districts create "exceptional-need funds," which states would manage to help fill in the gaps when districts face particularly challenging cases. "This type of fund, managed and predominantly financed by the state, acts as an insurance mechanism for districts that can't cover the full cost of educating high-need pupils along with all others under their purview," they write.

Richmond said he wanted to investigate the topic because the cost of educating students with disabilities has increased considerably. "It can top $100,000 to $200,00 a year ... There are ways that we can improve the way we distribute dollars to districts, and we can better serve children by doing so," Richmond said. "This is about what states and districts can do in the absence of IDEA being reauthorized and in the absence of federal policy changing considerably."

Lindsay Jones, the director of public policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, says she agrees with the report's assessment of federal special education policy. "We absolutely agree. The law is not addressing outcomes of students in special education. Raising student achievement, raising student outcomes -- we will talk to anybody who wants to put good ideas on the table about how to make it happen," she said. "It's not happening at the rate it should."

But, she added, many of the parents in contact with her group have pointed to cuts to their children's services in school, so Jones sees it as a mistake to focus solely on reducing costs. "It's too bad that this report is only focused on money," she said. "Having a basic set of resources is very necessary, but money won't get us outcomes."



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