Don’t blame special ed

Don’t blame special education for soaking up more money, write Jay Greene and Marcus Winters in the new issue of Education Next. Special ed spending has risen dramatically because all education spending has soared and many more students are in the program: 8.3 percent of all students were in special education in 1977; that rose to 13.7 percent by 2004. On a per student basis, special ed students get about the same percentage of school funding as in the past.

Furthermore, stories about pushy parents getting their children’s private school tuition paid for by taxpayers are wildly exaggerated, write Greene and Winters.

A popular riff on the idea that special education students are bleeding public school budgets blames private placements. A large number of mostly undeserving disabled students and their clever parents, critics allege, have managed to get public schools to pay for attendance at expensive private schools. Tales of the “greedy needy” — disabled students who receive unreasonably expensive services — appear regularly in the media.

. . . Only a very small fraction of disabled students are placed in private schools at public expense. And contrary to claims that this is increasingly common, the likelihood that disabled students will be placed in a private school has not grown in the last 15 years. While some of those private placements are indeed expensive, the overall cost of private placement nationwide constitutes a tiny portion of public school spending.

Students placed in private schools tend to have more serious disabilities than the average student and are more likely to be diagnosed with emotional problems. They’d be more expensive in regular schools and more likely to disrupt the education of other students.

The Supreme Court will hear a case on whether a disabled student must enroll in a public-school program and show that it’s failed before getting compensation for private-school tuition. The student’s father, a multimillionaire, was an MTV founder. He wants to set a precedent to help less affluent families.

Florida’s McKay vouchers, which let parents of special ed students decide if they prefer a private school, control costs because the voucher is tied to the public school’s average special ed spending, note Greene and Winters. The program also provides an incentive not to label students as disabled. Not surprisingly, parents like to have a choice, though most stay with their local public school.

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  1. wayne martin says:

    Another good article from Hoover.

    > Debunking a Special Education Myth
    > Don’t blame private options for rising costs

    This article focuses on private placements, which we see are a very small percentage of the total US enrollment. Useful information which would otherwise be hard to find without a lengthy search.
    No reason to quibble with the article’s numbers.

    The chart (Fig. 1) which provides a breakdown of the expenditures by disability for private placement and disability of other Special Education Students should be included in all school district budgets so that this fundamental data is available at a district level. Having this national data provided by a private organization as a research project is not very helpful in understanding local education (and Special Education) spending.

    Here are a couple of papers which provide detailed data about Special Education spending–

    Special Education Expenditure Project:

    This document is one of a series of reports based on the Special Education Expenditure Project, a study of the nation’s spending on special education and related services based on analysis of data for the 1999-2000 school year. This report focuses on three questions: “How much is the nation spending on services for students with disabilities?”; “What is the additional expenditure used to educate a student with a disability?”; and “To what extent does the federal government support spending on special education?” A highlights section notes the following: total special education spending (approximately $50 billion); total regular and special education spending on students with disabilities ($77.3 billion); additional expenditure on special education students (about $5,918 per student); percent of total K-12 education expenditures (21%); total spending ratio (1.9 times that of the typical student with no special education needs); and federal funding ($3.7 billion, or $605 per special education student and 7.5% of total special education spending). Separate sections of the report provide an introduction to the study, analysis of total spending on students with disabilities, analysis of allocation of special education expenditures, and analysis of allocation and use of federal funds. Appendices provide data on samples used and the data analyzed. (DB)

    As usual … a lot of reading ..

    This Hoover article doesn’t help much with the discussion on “Adam”.

  2. John Thacker says:

    A more justifiable complaint, and one I’ve heard, is one that notes that children in some of the richest school districts in the country are more likely to qualify for special needs in some way, especially vague learning disabilities like “dyscalculia”. Especially after the SAT stopped putting asterisks besides students who qualified for extra time and so forth.

  3. How does this:

    8.3 percent of all students were in special education in 1977; that rose to 13.7 percent by 2004.

    square with this?

    On a per student basis, special ed students get about the same percentage of school funding as in the past.

    If the percentage of spec ed kids is up by about 50% then the per student percentage may not have changed but the percentage of the overall budget certainly must have. I don’t see how spec ed couldn’t be soaking up more money if the per student expenditure is constant but the percentage of the student population is up 50%.

  4. Wayne Martin says:

    > I don’t see how spec ed couldn’t be soaking up more
    > money if the per student expenditure is constant
    > but the percentage of the student population
    > is up 50%.

    Yes, that’s true.

  5. Here’s the relevant paragraph:

    Still, the large cost increase doesn’t mean that special education is taking away more resources from general education. Total revenue for public education also nearly doubled between 1977 and 2003, adjusted for inflation. Special education costs constituted roughly the same share of total public school revenue (8.3 percent) in 2003 as in 1977. While special education does consume more money over time, the relative financial burden of special education on public education has not increased because public schools are also receiving significantly more money.

    Fewer students are mentally retarded, an expensive category to serve, while many more are classified as learning disabled, the least expensive category.

  6. Wayne Martin says:

    Gawd .. I hate education finance .. what a hodgepodge of numbers stuck to paper …

    The following posts provide details about some local school system’s SpEd spending, which demonstrates some variability as one moves about the country–

    MA SpEd Finance (01):

    MA SpEd Finances (03-05):

    (Note—the percentage of SpEd against the District budgets can be seen in this links.)

    Special education swells school budget:

    While the total number of special-education students in Seattle’s public schools hasn’t changed much, the number of those who are the most expensive to educate has skyrocketed. Since 1998, the district has seen its enrollment of kids with autism and health impairment grow annually by an average of 21 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

    The Seattle district has become something of a magnet for families of disabled children, often because of the services offered by Children’s Hospital & Regional Medical Center and the University of Washington’s Experimental Education Unit, said Sara Woolverton, the district’s special-education manager. A partnership with the UW has resulted in more children with autism being identified earlier.

    Seattle parent Mary Maddox, a special-education advocate, believes the district needs to be more aggressive in pursuing money from the state for all students.

    This article from the Washington Post is worth reading in its entirety:

    Special-Ed Tuition a Growing Drain on D.C.
    Basic Needs Take a Hit to Cover Costs of Sending Kids to Private Schools
    By Dan Keating and V. Dion Haynes
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Monday, June 5, 2006; Page A01

    The District spent $118 million last year on the tuition of special education students attending private schools, an expense that has increased 65 percent since 2000, and officials have covered the rising costs by transferring tens of millions of dollars a year from public school programs, records show.

    The huge expenditures have become a major financial drain on a troubled school system that has cut programs and struggled to keep classrooms supplied. Although the 2,283 students sent to private facilities represent 4 percent of the system’s enrollment, they are consuming 15 percent of its budget.

    City and school officials said they could not fully account for the growth in the tuition spending, in part because their record-keeping is deficient.

    “That’s the thing that’s so frustrating with special education: We’ve accepted dysfunctionality as a way of being,” said school board Vice President Carolyn N. Graham, who recently chaired a board committee that studied special education. “We don’t know how much we’ve paid. We don’t know what we paid for.”

    In addition to the tuition bills, the District is responsible for reimbursing parents’ legal fees when it loses a case before a hearing officer. Those two categories of expenses make up more than half of the District’s special education budget, compared with one-third in fiscal 2000. And special education’s share of the total D.C. school budget has grown from one-fifth to one-third during that period.

    This article presents data that is somewhat at odds with the premise of the Hoover article.

  7. While it is true that only a very small fraction of disabled students are placed in private schools at public expense, it is mostly the rich that benefited from private placement. There is a blog about it in Mad Tedious. The blog refers to article in New York Magazine, about how the rich abused the system.

  8. Wayne Martin wrote:

    Gawd .. I hate education finance .. what a hodgepodge of numbers stuck to paper

    You ain’t kiddin’ and this article seems to be a prime example of the breed.

    Let’s see if I’ve got this straight: the percentage of spec ed students has gone from 8.3% to 13.7% in the same period that education spending overall has doubled yet “the relative financial burden of special education on public education has not increased because public schools are also receiving significantly more money.”

    How’s that trick managed? Has per student spending for spec ed lagged significantly? A 50% increase in the percentage of students but no increase in “the relative financial burden of special education” means that per student spending for spec ed must have lagged and not insignificantly.

    Wouldn’t spec ed per student spending in 2004 have had to drop to about 66% of the 1977 percentage in order to maintain “the relative financial burden”? How else to account for a percentage increase of more expensive students that doesn’t result in an increase in “the relative financial burden” regardless of the overall funding increases?

    The article reads more like talking points for an increase in spec ed funding then an explanation of the destination of spec ed dollars.

    bd wrote:

    The blog refers to article in New York Magazine about how the rich abused the system.

    Too bad the article didn’t go into the inadequacies of the law that make this sort of “abuse” perfectly legal and entirely foreseeable.

    Is anyone naive enough to believe that if the public can be saddled with some expense we won’t be? What’s the expectation for the behavior of rich parents with spec ed kids? That they’ll nobly forgo public funding since they’re able to afford to shoulder the entire burden? Public funding, all public funding constitutes a “commons” and if you don’t know how that plays out you ought to read about it.

  9. IDEA is a federally mandated program that is not even close to being fully funded. Wasn’t the most recent legislation supposed to TRY to bring funding up to 40%, versus the 17% currently allocated? Who makes up the shortfall? Well, here in CA, it is passed on to local districts. These costs, special placement or no, are encroaching on local school budgets. This is really noticeable in our small district.

  10. Mike Curtis says:

    Please…Please…Please…pay whatever it takes to fund the separation of special ed from “mainstream classrooms.” It’s money well spent. Having your kids share a compulsory educational system with special needs kids is one of the main reasons why the general public wants school choice and vouchers. It’s not a matter of how you feel about it; it’s not a matter of leveling the field; it’s a fact, when you place special needs kids in a mainstream classroom, the level of learning goes down. Special needs requires professional care. To be treated equally is to create a disadvantage to all students of unequal ability.
    In the high school here I teach math, the Special students’ diploma looks just like the valedictorian’s. There is no code to differentiate the educated from the accommodated. One can only imagine why the Public gets the impression that Johnny can’t read the diploma he was awarded by the public school system.

  11. Cardinal Fang says:

    I checked out the article in New York magazine, supposedly about how rich parents abuse the system by getting the public school to pay for their children’s private school placement.

    What I found was a completely different story. Suburban schools have programs to offer special services to autistic kids. New York City does not have adequate programs. Therefore, parents of autistic kids sue the district to provide the appropriate education that their children need and are legally entitled to, and they win those suits. The New York school system is forced to pay for the autistic kids’ tuition in private school, and court costs too.

    Probably the successful sue-ers are richer than average, but that doesn’t mean that they are gaming the system to get something they’re not entitled to. Rather, less rich families are less likely to have the money and the savvy to navigate the system, so their autistic kids don’t get the help they need.

    Educating autistic kids is going to be expensive, whether in public school or in private school. If enough rich parents sue the NYC school system, maybe it will get busy and set up the programs it should have set up ten or fifteen years ago for all autistic students.

  12. Julia K says:

    Outplacements are not the only special ed cost. The impetus for smaller class sizes comes in part from the practice of mainstreaming as many children as possible into very heterogeneous classrooms. The schools also have a much larger number of special educators and aides on staff. This larger staff, and the greater amount of paperwork required to justify special ed decisions, requires more administrative personnel and paper pushers. Every extra school employee costs money, especially if they are eligible for health care and pensions.

    Outplacements are only a small proportion of the costs associated with special ed.

  13. I have an autistic kid, so I believe that the school district should make reasonable effort to educate special ed students. However, I do not think they should drain the district’s finance so other students’ education get short changed. In the NYMag article, 72K is considered to be Wal-Mart price, the typical settlement is in the 100K range, one even asked for $387K for one year of therapy. People from all over the country move there to take advantage of it. I certainly consider that to be abusing the system.

    Suburban schools have programs to offer special services to autistic kids? Yes, but the special ed class in my suburban district does not have anywhere close to the one to one ratio as in these private school, so certainly it would not satisfy those parents in the article.

    Am I satisfied with the special ed program in my kid’s school? Certainly not, but I do not think the district should spend more money, rather I would like to see the program run in a more intelligent way.

  14. While you’re certainly entitled to your opinion your opinion isn’t going to deter parents from doing what they can for their children even if it means “abusing” the system.

    Since this result was perfectly predictable you ought to take it up with your elected representative. A poorly-drafted law ought to touched up but this is just a case of throwing out a big piece of bait and complaining that the wrong fish are biting.