Education Funding

The Special Education Spending Debate Goes On

By Nirvi Shah — July 12, 2011 2 min read
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At a dinner party, you’re not supposed to talk politics or religion. Although Miss Manners never forbid it, chatting about how to save money in special education may as well have been included in that list of taboo topics, too. After all, cost can’t be a consideration when deciding what services a student with a disability needs.

While the rules about keeping views on religion and politics to oneself were abandoned long ago, the unofficial gag order on talking special ed funding held—until recently.

In a story earlier this year, I wrote about how one Massachusetts company is encouraging school districts to strive for more efficiency in special education. Look here to read more about that and some other recent discussions about special ed spending.

Now, others are chiming in. A report from the American Enterprise Institute reiterated some of the issues raised by others about how special education dollars are spent.

For example, districts need to keep better track of how teachers and staff who work with students with disabilities are assigned, said Nathan Levenson, managing director of the District Management Council, who wrote the AEI report “Something Has Got to Change: Rethinking Special Education.” They also need to rethink the use of aides and how much therapy—speech, physical, and occupational—students receive and evaluate whether those services affect student achievement.

When school districts don’t take the relatively simple step of looking at how many aides are assigned to each school, how many hours each student spends in therapy, and how many students each special education teacher works with, they are missing an opportunity. “As the business adage says, ‘What gets measured gets managed’,” Mr. Levenson writes, “and in special education, this lack of management has become increasingly costly.”

He also suggested zeroing in on teaching students how to read, drawing on his experiences as superintendent in Arlington, Mass. The kind of remediation and intervention he suggests echoes the philosophy behind response to intervention.

Some of Mr. Levenson’s other points drew criticism from the writers at IDEA Money Watch, including basic facts cited in the report about the number and types of students with disabilities in the country.

They also take issue with Mr. Levenson’s statement that “the lackluster results for students with special needs are not from lack of effort; school districts are spending an increasing percentage of their total budget on special education.”

Spending money isn’t the same thing as effort. “By any large-scale measure, students with disabilities are performing poorly despite the enormous amount of funds that schools claim to be spending,” IDEA Money Watch said.

Another point about spending, and whether spending more per student with a disability leads to the labeling more kids as needing special education services, is here.

As states and school districts continue to cut their budgets, it seems special education spending is now officially a part of the discussion.

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

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