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Least Restrictive Class Found Cheapest for Handicapped

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A new analysis of special-education costs confirms what many in the field have assumed: that the "least restrictive'' classroom environment for handicapped students is also the cheapest one.

The study, conducted by two Harvard University researchers, is one of two studies scheduled for completion this fall that examine the cost of special education. Experts say the findings from both analyses may be significant because no major studies have attempted to examine the question comprehensively since a widely quoted RAND Corporation study conducted in the late 1970's.

In addition, the research comes at a time when debate in the field continues to rage over what is called "the regular-education initiative,'' a movement to serve all mildly handicapped children--all of the time--within their regular classrooms.

Though the proponents of the controversial initiative have made no claims for its money-saving benefits, critics have said the underlying motive of some of its biggest boosters, such as Assistant Secretary of Education Madeleine C. Will, has been to save money.

"One hope is that this study will help to inform some of that debate,'' said Judith D. Singer, who wrote the report with Ellen S. Raphael. Ms. Singer is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her co-author is a doctoral candidate in public policy at Harvard.

Both studies were supported with funding from the U.S. Education Department.

The findings of the second study, conducted by the Decision Resources Corporation, have not yet been released. Expected to be the more comprehensive of the two reports, the $1.9-million study by the private research firm will examine special-education costs in 60 school districts in 18 states.

Cost Breakdown

The Harvard report, prepared under a $73,000 federal grant, is the final strand of a more comprehensive study of special education that was launched by six researchers in 1981. The more extensive "Collaborative Study of Children with Special Needs,'' jointly underwritten by three private foundations, tackles a wide variety of issues in the field.

The smaller report looks at pupil costs in three large, urban school districts--the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, Milwaukee Public Schools, and Rochester City School District in New York.

After controlling for differences in the primary handicaps of the students, their functional status, and the study sites, the researchers calculated the actual cost of educating a handicapped student on the basis of the resources used by those students, teachers' time, and the operating costs associated with placements.

The researchers found that school districts spent a mean annual total of $3,847 per pupil on handicapped students who were served in regular classes only.

The districts' mean per-pupil expenditure for students who were based in a regular class but received some instruction in special-education resource rooms was $5,229.

The highest-cost students were those placed in a special class in a regular school--with or without "pull-out'' instruction in a regular classroom. The school districts spent a mean of $8,649 and $8,695 per pupil, respectively, on them.

"I would suspect that the finding ... will certainly strengthen the arguments of people who support the 'regular-education initiative,''' said James Kauffman, a University of Virginia researcher who has been a critic of the initiative. "School boards, taxpayers, and superintendents are going to love it.''

The Harvard researchers also determined that, on average, the districts' special-education students cost approximately twice as much as their nonhandicapped peers.

In addition, their calculations revealed that although severely handicapped students, such as those who are hearing-impaired or have multiple handicaps, generally cost the districts more than most special-education students, their share of the total amount spent on special education was still only 6.4 percent. Students in those categories accounted for 4.5 percent of the student population that was studied.

"It's not like a small proportion of the severely disabled is sapping the resources of the special-education population,'' Ms. Singer said. "The proportion of the expenditures is roughly equitable and that's an argument that could promote unity within special education.''

Both studies are the first to look at the sensitive issue of special-education costs since the researcher James S. Kakalik tackled the question in a 1981 RAND Corporation study. His research, which examined costs in 46 localities in 14 states, has been considered the definitive treatment of the topic. It focused on special-education costs during the 1977-78 school year--soon after school districts began to feel the impact of landmark federal special-education law passed in 1975.

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