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Study Documents Shifts in Districts' Spending

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While per-pupil spending for regular education services hit a plateau between 1991 and 1996, the portion of public school budgets going to special education increased during the same period, a recent study concludes.

Taking inflation into account, average per-pupil spending nationwide rose from $6,529 in 1991 to $6,576 in 1996, an increase of just 0.7 percent, according to the report released last month by the Economic Policy Institute.

But in nine representative districts whose spending patterns the EPI studied as part of the report, special education spending grew from 17.8 percent to 19 percent of all school spending over that period.

"The possibility that regular education is being shortchanged is something that policymakers may want to consider," said Richard Rothstein, the author of the report and a research associate for the institute, a liberal think tank based here.

Spending Shifts

Mr. Rothstein's report, "Where's the Money Going?," follows a 1995 EPI report that concluded education spending was not rising as quickly as some had believed. ("Report Contests Huge Boost in School Dollars," Nov. 22, 1995.)

For More Information

"Where's the Money Going?" is available for $15.50 from EPI Publications, 1660 L St. N.W., Suite 1200, Washington, DC 20036; (800) EPI-4844. The institute's home page on the World Wide Web is www.epinet.org.

Using Department of Education data, Mr. Rothstein also found that per-pupil spending increased 67 percent between 1967 and 1991, at an average of 2 percent a year.

That rate of increase fell to 0.14 percent annually through 1996, at the same time that public schools saw their enrollments increase 8 percent.

"Basically, what we can say is that real per-pupil spending has been stagnant over the last five years," Mr. Rothstein said during a media briefing last month.

The report took a more detailed look at changes in school spending by studying the 1967, 1991, and 1996 budgets of nine districts of varying size.

For example, the proportion of the sample districts' budgets that went to regular education fell from 80 percent in 1967 to 58.5 percent in 1991.

Meanwhile, special education spending rose from 3.6 percent of school budgets to 17.8 percent in that time.

The shift coincided with the passage in Congress of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act in 1975. The law requires school districts to provide a "free, appropriate public education" to all students, regardless of disability.

By 1996, regular education accounted for 56.8 percent of total spending, while special education's share rose to 19 percent.

Spending patterns also have changed in other areas.

In 1967, the nine districts allocated an average of 0.3 percent of their budgets to bilingual education. Bilingual services accounted for 1.9 percent of their budgets in 1991, and 2.5 percent in 1996.

The report also reflects the growing costs of free and reduced-price meals. Food-service spending was 1.9 percent of the districts' budgets in 1967. It climbed to 3.3 percent in 1991 and 4.8 percent in 1996.

Value Judgments

The spending shifts came as no surprise to John F. Jennings, the director for the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank.

"The general perception is that schools have all this money and are wasting it," said Mr. Jennings, a former top aide to Democrats on the House education committee. "They have to spend a lot of it on the disabled, which is good, but don't have enough on a day-to-day basis to meet their needs."

But Eric A. Hanushek, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Rochester in New York, said the EPI study, like others, fails to address a central issue: "The piece that no one ever talks about is whether we're getting a good value from the money going to special education."

Among the districts the EPI studied, the largest per-pupil increase in regular education spending between 1991 and 1996 was in the 31,000-student Spring Branch, Texas, schools, where spending on technology propelled a 14.2 percent overall hike.

In the 683,000-student Los Angeles district, a 15.8 percent drop in regular education funding from 1991 to 1996 was prompted by a 10 percent salary cut for all of the district's employees in 1992 and a drop in the percent of students in regular education programs.

Los Angeles' drop in regular education spending was offset, the report says, by a 44.5 percent surge in spending for student health and psychological services in that period.

Mr. Hanushek, who is well known for his research suggesting that there is no systematic link between increased spending and higher student achievement, said the study offers insight into spending trends, but he disagreed that it backs arguments for increased spending.

"There's no evidence that pumping up the rate of growth in regular education will raise the general learning of students," he said.

Also studied in the report were the school systems in Anne Arundel County, Md.; Bettendorf, Iowa; Boulder, Colo.; Claiborne, Tenn.; East Baton Rouge, La.; Fall River, Mass.; and Middletown, N.Y.

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