School & District Management

Could Cutting Special Ed. Spending Improve Student Achievement?

By Nirvi Shah — September 06, 2012 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion Best Ways for Schools to Prepare for the Next Pandemic
Being better connected to families and the community and diversifying the education workforce are some of the ways to be ready.
14 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
School & District Management From Our Research Center Educators' Support for COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates Is Rising Dramatically
Nearly 60 percent of educators say students who are old enough to receive COVID vaccines should be required to get them to attend school.

4 min read
Mariah Vaughn, a 15-year-old Highland Park student, prepares to receive a COVID-19 vaccine during the vaccine clinic at Topeka High School on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021.
Mariah Vaughn, 15, a student at Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kan., prepares to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at her school in August.
Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP
School & District Management 10 Ways to Tackle Education's Urgent Challenges
As the school year gets underway, we ask hard questions about education’s biggest challenges and offer some solutions.
2 min read
Conceptual Image of schools preparing for the pandemic
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
School & District Management Reported Essay Principals Need Social-Emotional Support, Too
By overlooking the well-being of their school leaders, districts could limit how much their schools can flourish.
7 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week