Education Funding

Case Made for Restoring, Boosting Special Ed. Research Spending

By Nirvi Shah — June 12, 2012 4 min read
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This afternoon, a U.S. Senate subcommittee on labor, health, and human services boosted the budget for the National Center for Special Education Research by $10 million, though it remains to be seen whether that will be accepted by the Senate appropriations committee and the rest of Congress. Below, you’ll read about why advocates and researchers want special education research spending to be restored to previous levels, a case they made during a briefing on the issue earlier today.


Students with disabilities still don’t graduate at the same rate as their peers; they score far worse on national tests, and they are far less likely to get jobs after high school. So, for all those reasons, it makes no sense to cut back on special education research spending, researchers and advocates said at a briefing on Capitol Hill today.

“That research has helped us debunk many of the myths that these children are unteachable,” said Margaret McLaughlin of the University of Maryland and president of the Council for Exceptional Children, which organized the briefing.

Her organization and others are fighting to have the budget for the National Center for Special Education Research restored. President Barack Obama recommended a cut to the center’s budget in his spending proposal last year, and Congress cut the center’s budget even more than the president proposed—from $71 million to about $50 million. While that was only a sliver of the extensive cuts made to education spending last year, it represents nearly a third of the center’s budget.

“Without these funds, there will be fewer research projects,” McLaughlin said, at the same time the special education community faces new challenges, including the implementation of the new Common Core State Standards. “For some of the new challenges, we will not have the research to address them.”

Since its creation in 2004, the National Center for Special Education Research has spent $440 million on more than 260 research projects spread across 37 states and the District of Columbia. Over time, NCSER’s budget has slipped from more than $83 million in 2005 to about $50 million now.

The NCSER did have some difficulties early on, soon after becoming one of four centers overseen by the Institute of Education Sciences. Its first director, Edward J. Kame’enui, stepped down in 2007 after his work in a previous role as a technical assistance adviser to the Reading First Program was questioned as improper. It wasn’t until 2011 that the center had another permanent director in place: Deborah Speece of the University of Maryland, who was appointed for a six-year term.

In addition, there were concerns that once the center separated from its previous home at the Education Department’s Office of Special Education Programs, that its funding could be cut—which has happened, McLaughlin said. The other worry was that research would be slower to make its way into classrooms. The trade-off was more rigorous, high-quality research, she said.

In a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, 281 researchers and other members of the special education community last week asked the Obama administration to, at a minimum, restore the center’s budget. (Kame’enui, who has been working at the University of Oregon since leaving his post at NCSER, was one of the people who signed the letter to Duncan.)

Among the center’s notable successes, the letter writers say, is the advancement of schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports, or SWPBIS. A number of research projects related to SWPBIS, which approaches instruction about behavior as if it were a core part of the school curriculum, have been funded by the center. Now, SWPBIS is in 17,000 schools in 44 states.

“Its benefits impact all students, yet it was born entirely from special education research efforts to identify and serve children with significant emotional and behavioral disabilities,” the letter says.

The same goes for response to intervention, which is intended to intervene quickly and intensely when students are struggling and in some cases, keep them from going into special education programs unnecessarily.

While SWPBIS and RTI are proven to work, they aren’t always put into practice correctly, said George Sugai, a professor at the University of Connecticut who has worked extensively on SWPBIS.

Of the 17,000 schools that use behavioral interventions and supports, only about 60 percent have done so with “high fidelity,” he said.

Another notable accomplishment: A NCSER-funded project helped determine steps that can improve the rate at which students with intellectual disabilities found summer jobs, said Erik Carter, of Vanderbilt University

“Research shows the futures of students with disabilities can be altered dramatically,” Carter said, but that work is far from complete.

Despite the case made today, McLaughlin said the reality is that Congress is unlikely to restore spending to cuts already made when they approve a new budget for fiscal year 2013.

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