School & District Management

Could Cutting Special Ed. Spending Improve Student Achievement?

By Nirvi Shah — September 06, 2012 3 min read
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A new analysis of the cost of special education concludes that by cutting special education personnel in high-spending districts to the national average, the country could save up to $10 billion a year and improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities.

In “Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education,” former Arlington, Mass., Superintendent Nathan Levenson analyzed spending and staffing patterns in 43 percent of all school districts with at least 3,000 students, looking closely at how those districts spend money on students with disabilities.

He found that the median district has 7.6 special education teachers for every 1,000 students. So districts that employ more special education teachers collectively employ about 70,000 more special education teachers than they would if they staffed at the median level. Using the national average teacher’s salary of $54,800, plus 32 percent of salary for benefits, he said districts could save $5.1 billion a year by reducing their special education teaching staff to the average.

Levenson made a similar conclusion about paraprofessionals, estimating a savings of about $2.3 billion a year.

Especially recently, special education spending has come under scrutiny by districts and states floundering because of the economic downturn. Federal laws prevent districts and states from cutting special education budgets without good reason, a provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act called “maintenance of effort” that is intended to buffer services for students with disabilities from ups and downs in education budgets. Some states have cut spending anyway, and some districts are cutting services and offerings for other students because of their special education obligations. Some districts have found creative solutions to cutting costs, including outsourcing services.

In addition, Levenson, a managing director at the for-profit District Management Council in Boston, used pairs of demographically similar districts in Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, and Texas, to show that districts that spend less on special education often produce better academic outcomes for special needs students than their higher-spending counterparts. Paired districts had socioeconomically similar student populations, a similar number of students, and roughly the same percentage of students with disabilities.

In nine of the 10 pairs, while one district spent between 11 percent and 57 percent more on special education, the other had 10 percent to 110 percent more students reach proficiency on state assessments. In only a single pair of districts in Florida, Levenson found, did more spending go hand in hand with a greater percentage of students with disabilities who were proficient on state tests.

“We do not imply that these relationships are causal. And we’re mindful that the district pairs were chosen to illustrate the inverse relationship between special education inputs (spending) and outcomes (achievement)—so it’s not surprising that they did, in fact, illustrate that relationship,” Levenson wrote in the report.

Levenson has several recommendations for improving educational outcomes for students with disabilities and the efficiency of special education. He says districts, should employ more-effective general education and special education teachers—not just more of them or more staff—and carefully manage student loads for special education teachers.

At the federal and state level, the report recommends that:
• Federal maintenance-of-effort requirements that keep states and districts from reducing spending on special education should be done away with;
No Child Left Behind‘s subgroup accountability and reporting requirements, including those for special education students, should be preserved; and,
• Greater flexibility in the use of federal special education dollars should be permitted.

You can read about previous thoughts from Levenson on the special education spending issue here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.