School & District Management

Special Education Costs Drive School Funding Disparities, Researcher Says

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 24, 2016 5 min read
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Crossposted from Politics K-12

There’s been a lively debate recently about funding gaps inside districts between schools with low levels of state and local aid and their wealthier counterparts. But is a major factor in intradistrict inequality being overlooked by many people? If you ask Bruce Baker, a Rutgers University professor who studies school finance, the answer is yes.

First, here’s how the debate has played out in Washington: The U.S. Department of Education is expected to issue Every Student Succeeds Act regulations that will require districts’ per-pupil spending in Title I schools—those with relatively large shares of students from low-income households—to be at least equal to the average of per-pupil spending in non-Title I schools. It’s supposed to govern the requirement that federal aid supplement, and not supplant, state and local K-12 funding.

Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. and others say districts can use “thoughtful” strategies to close the gaps, without having to transfer teachers en masse between the two types of schools. And more generally, his supporters, like Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation, say that however districts have to change practices in order to meet the regulation, such a rule would fulfill the purpose of federal aid to poor students, as well as federal law, by providing a more proper and fair level of resources.

But others strongly disagree, saying they’re worried about the burden as well as unintended consequences for districts and poor students. They also say the expected regulation is very clear federal overreach. And the two national teachers’ unions, with their local affiliates’ collective bargaining agreements on their minds, are clearly worried about the prospect.

So what’s a factor that many people are missing? Special education, Baker says. And why? “The strongest predictor of differences in spending across schools is different rates of kids with disabilities,” Baker told me.

A Misleading Narrative

Now, Baker says he isn’t arguing that senior teachers’ salaries, and where they teach, don’t contribute in some fashion to disparities inside districts And he says that inequity within a school district is a problem that should, in fact, be studied and remedied where possible. But his main thesis here is that a certain storyline has been crafted and stressed about the distribution of teachers and its effect on resource levels that doesn’t have a lot of evidence behind it.

As an example of how special education spending is closely correlated to spending gaps, Baker pointed to an analysis he conducted of inequitable spending levels between New York City public schools. You can see in the chart to the right there’s a close relationship between special education and per-pupil spending levels.

That holds true outside of Gotham as well, Baker said: “The within-district distribution of kids by special needs is perhaps more often a function of district program planning and allocation practices.”

For example, in some districts, wealthier schools tend to identify a higher proportion of students with autism than in their less-well-resourced counterparts, he noted. And in many cases, districts might pick a particular school site to offer a certain suite of special education services. But generally, the idea that per-pupil spending corresponds more closely to levels of disadvantaged students than any other factor is off the mark, Baker told me.

Baker offered a few other arguments in this vein:

  • There’s a misperception that a large number of districts are very heterogeneous and contain both “wealthy” and “poor” schools. In reality, many districts have a lot of one type, but not the other.
  • It’s also generally a mistake to think that special education students are spread evenly throughout districts. In reality, those students tend to be unevenly distributed.
  • Intradistrict spending disparities are notably less important to overall educational funding equity than disparities between different districts.
  • Inequitable distribution of resources within school districts is complicated and messy, whereas interdistrict inequality can be largely traced directly to decisions made by state legislatures and governors.

A Late Draft on Title I Spending Regulations

It’s important to note here that in a late draft of the proposed spending regulation, Education Department staffers did craft language that took students with disabilities into account. Under that proposal, offered before negotiations over spending rules broke down, districts would be able to argue that wealthier schools serving a high share of students with disabilities shouldn’t ultimately be hurt in their ability to comply with the per-pupil spending requirement I mentioned in the introduction. (That requirement would apply to a provision of ESSA called “supplement-not-supplant.”)

So the department, at least, has taken note of the issue, although we don’t know exactly how the actual regulations will address this factor, or what the threshold would be for a high share of such students.

In at least one key respect, Baker’s making a similar point to the one made last week at a U.S. Senate education committee hearing by National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten: disparities between different school districts matter more than disparities inside districts. And his broader contention is that focusing on per-pupil spending levels, as many advocates are, misses the point in many respects—although it’s worth pointing out that some, like Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners, are amused by what they see as the unions’ self-serving and inconsistent position that in this situation, per-pupil spending shouldn’t be the focus.

“I want to see both,” Baker said of greater equity between districts and within districts. “But we have to be really careful about how we try to impose the regulations to improve within-district equity, because there are a lot of factors that affect why different schools have different amounts of money.”

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