Fordham Institute study: Spending and special education

10 Sep

Lyndsey Layton has an interesting article in the Washington Post, Academic success in special education not linked to spending, study finds:

The amount of money spent by school districts on special education varies greatly around the country, and some districts that spend less than others are getting better academic results from students, according to a study released Wednesday.

The study, sponsored by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, suggests that some districts are overspending on special education, which has become a growing segment of school budgets around the country.

If all districts spent the median amount on special education, it would save $10 billion a year, according to the study, which was written by Nathan Levenson, a consultant and former school superintendent.

Levenson gathered data from 1,400 districts representing more than one-third of K-12 students in the United States, making it the largest and most detailed collection of special education staffing and cost data available.

There’s not a lot of research around spending in special education because I think it’s a topic that makes lots of people uncomfortable,” Levenson said. “No one wants to balance budgets on the backs of very needy children.”

Levenson focused on 10 pairs of school districts in five states — Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio and Texas. The districts that made up each pair were roughly the same size, with equal numbers of special education students and similar demographic characteristics.

In each pair, one district had higher achievement among its special education students while spending as much or less than the other district.

People think intuitively that more spending must mean better outcomes,” Levenson said. “This paper shows that is just not true.”

See, Could Cutting Special Ed. Spending Improve Student Achievement?


Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education

By Nathan Levenson / September 5, 2012

Foreword by Chester E. Finn, Jr. , Michael J. Petrilli

Download the study

Here is what Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli say about the study in the Flypaper piece, Maintenance of inefficiency:

The roadblock? A federal “maintenance of effort” (MOE) requirement in the Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA, the federal special-education law) that handcuffs states and districts by requiring that special-ed spending never decline from one year to the next. In times of plenty, this mandate discourages efforts to make productivity gains; when revenues shrink, it means that special-education spending will consume an ever-growing slice of school budgets.

For one brief shining moment, Secretary Duncan appeared ready to end the MOE silliness. Then he caved to the powerful special-education lobby, which refused to accept anything other than expenditures escalating into perpetuity.

While economic realities alone should be reason enough to jettison requirements that dictate a spend-spend-spend approach to special ed, a new Fordham study by Nathan Levenson provides an even more compelling reason for doing away with MOE: Spending more on special ed simply may not do much for kids.

How is this possible? While public education is never very hospitable to innovation, efficiency, or productivity boosters, special education has generally been downright hostile. Despite statutory and regulatory tweaks from time to time, our approach hasn’t really changed since the federal law was passed more than thirty-five years ago, even as so much else in K–12 education has changed in important ways. That does not, regrettably, mean our traditional approach has worked well. Indeed, change is desperately needed in this corner of the K–12 world, as any look at the (woeful) achievement data or (skyrocketing) spending data for special-needs students demonstrates. To oversimplify just a bit, general (i.e., “regular”) education is now focused on academic outcomes, but special education remains fixated on inputs, ratios, and services.

That’s a shame, since the same basic dysfunctions that ail general education afflict special education too: middling (or worse) teacher quality; an inclination to throw “more people” at any problem; a reluctance to look at cost-effectiveness; a crazy quilt of governance and decision-making authorities; a tendency to add rather than replace or redirect; and a full-on fear of results-based accountability. Yet the fates (as well as the budgets) of general and special education are joined. In many schools, the latter is the place to stick the kids who have been failed by the former—a major cause of the sky-high special-education-identification rates in many states and districts. Further, there exists in many locales the unrealistic expectation that every neighborhood (and charter) school should be able to serve every youngster with special needs at a high level.

Enter Levenson, former superintendent of the Arlington (MA) Public Schools. In his new study, Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education, he and his team identified school districts that get similar (or superior) results for special-education students as their peer districts, yet do so at significantly lower cost. They are doing right by kids and right by the bottom line. Both at once. And their practices are eminently imitate-able.

Levenson & co. also developed a national database on special-ed spending—the largest and most detailed ever built. It contains information from almost 1,500 districts, representing 30 percent of U.S. schoolchildren. The database shows that special-education spending and staffing vary wildly—much more so than it does for regular education. Principally driving this variation are huge district-to-district differences in staffing levels.

Some districts hire almost three times more special-ed teachers (per thousand students) than do others. The difference for paraprofessionals (teachers’ aides) is greater than four times. Levenson calculates that, if the high-spending districts adjusted their staffing levels in line with national norms, the country could save (or redirect) $10 billion annually. That’s not chump change! For example, it’s more than twice the total sums invested (over multiple years) in Race to the Top.

The potential for additional savings—and better services for kids—is greater still. To its discredit, longstanding federal law bars the teams that develop Individualized Education Programs for disabled pupils from considering the cost of the interventions and services that they are recommending. Untangling federal barriers to efficiency and effectiveness in special education is the job of Congress—yet no one in Washington seems the least bit interested in tackling an IDEA reauthorization anytime soon. That’s a huge mistake.

Levenson draws on his research to offer a few simple, but assuredly not simplistic, solutions. Make general education better, he says, so that fewer kids get directed into special education. Once youngsters are in special education, design interventions for them that take cost-effectiveness into account—a benefit both for the kids and for the taxpayer. Focus on recruiting better teachers, not more teachers (and aides, specialists, etc.)—for general and special education alike. And scrupulously manage their caseloads.

The Huffington Post highlights key findings of the report.

In the article, Special Education Spending Reduction To National Median Could Save Districts $10 Billion: Study, the Huffington Post reports:

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.

There are different disabilities covered by the Disabilities Education Act.

The U.S. Department of Education has a website which discusses federal law at The National Center for ADHD has a good synopsis of the disabilities law.

IDEA also grants increased parental participation and protection for students. 

Who qualifies?

Children between the ages of 3 and 21, who meet the eligibility criteria in one of thirteen qualifying disabilities and who require special education services because of the disability can qualify for services under IDEA. The categories of disabilities are; autism, deaf/blind, deafness, hearing impaired, mental retardation, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, serious emotional disturbance, specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, visual impairment including blindness, and other health impairment. To be eligible, a student must have a disability that adversely affects her or his educational performance and must need special education in order to receive an appropriate education. 

How can IDEA help my child?

Children who qualify under IDEA are provided with services and accommodations individualized to their needs. At its most basic IDEA entitles a child suspected of having a disability to a comprehensive evaluation by a multi-disciplinary team provided at no cost to parents. If the child is determined to need special education and related services an Individual Education Program (IEP) will be implemented based on the specific needs of the child as decided by the team, including parents. 

Once covered under an IEP, students with disabilities are re-evaluated at least every three years and their IEP is reviewed whenever a change in placement occurs, which is often annually as transferring from grade to grade is considered a change in placement. 

Additionally, students covered under IDEA are granted other protections and safeguards. Suspension for 10 cumulative days within the school year may result in a Manifestation Determination to decide if a link exists between the child’s behavior and her or his disability.  If a child covered under IDEA is suspended or expelled, she or he is still entitled to special education services. In the event that parents disagree with the school’s decision and request an impartial due process hearing, the “stay-put” provision will be enacted ensuring that the child remains in her or his current educational placement until administrative proceedings conclude. Exceptions include when the child brings a weapon or drugs to school or is determined to be a danger to her or himself or others.

Moi discussed learning disabilities in Survey: Most people don’t know what a learning disability is.

Once a learning disability has been diagnosed there are steps parents can take to advocate for their child. Scholastic has great advice for parents in the article, Falling Behind With a Learning Disability. Schools often test children to determine whether a child has a learning disability. Often parents may want to have an independent evaluation for their child.

PBS’ Reading Rockets has great information for parents who want an independent test for their child in the article, Having Your Child Tested for Learning Disabilities Outside of School.


Early warning signs of a learning disability         

How to know if your child has a learning disability

If You Suspect a Child Has a Learning Disability

Learning Disabilities in Children                            

Learning Disabilities (LD)                                               

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

One Response to “Fordham Institute study: Spending and special education”


  1. Parents can use tax deductions to pay for special education needs « drwilda - October 24, 2012

    […] discussed special education in Fordham Institute study: Spending and special education   In Survey: Most people don’t know what a learning disability is, moi […]

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