Special ed spending in tough times

Special-education spending can’t keep rising without crowding out spending for mainstream students, writes Rick Hess. In a follow-up post, he prints a principal’s point of view:

At our school, we spend about twice the money given to us by the government for special education students. That extra 100% comes directly from the general operating funds. For example, when a child enrolled in our school with a need for a one-on-one adult assistant, I had to cancel the after-school tutoring that served about 60 low-income students who were behind grade level in reading and math.Budgets are simple math. You get X dollars. If you have to spend $30,000 per year on an adult assistant for one child you must cut $30,000 from other programs. I get about $8000 to educate one child for an entire year. So this child is using up his money, and the money allotted for 3.5 additional children. When we have the annual meeting to discuss what support an individual special needs child should have, we are forbidden by law to discuss or take into account the cost of the services being discussed. That is crazy.

The federal mandates and the extra spending don’t guarantee students will learn, Hess adds.

An education consultant who’s also the mother of a special-needs child laments the money spent on meetings to discuss her child’s reading problem.  A voucher for a private school specializing in teaching “students with learning differences” would have been a lot cheaper and more effective, she writes.

Despite pandering to the special-ed lobby, Education Secretary Arne Duncan mentioned reining in special-ed spending in his “New Normal” speech, notes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

Oregon, among other states, has managed to trim its special education budget this year (maybe by intervening earlier when kids are struggling to read?). And yet doing so violates federal “maintenance of efforts” requirements. (Yes, Uncle Sam has actually made it illegal for states to handle sped more efficiently and thus lower spending.) So Oregon needs a waiver from the Secretary or else could lose millions in federal dollars; he should grant it, and send along a “thank-you” note to boot.

“Let’s talk bluntly about the laws, policies, and practices that can help educators spend limited resources in a way that’s fair to all our kids,” writes Hess.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. My son is one reason why special ed is so expensive. In his current “inclusion” environment he’s got two adults assigned to him all day long, one for behavioral issues, another for academic support. Were the Philadelphia School District to offer classes specifically for its high functioning, mathematically gifted autistic students, I’d choose that alternative in a heartbeat. Besides saving precious resources for others, this would substantially improve my son’s own school experience. He would be more likely to receive appropriate instruction, more likely to be engaged in classroom activities and therefore not acting up, and more likely to have opportunities to socialize with peers (his neuro-typical peers want nothing to do with him).

  2. Tina Underwood says:

    I have two sons, one receives special education services and one does not.

    I completely understand the difficult financial decisions the principal has to make. It’s horrid that 60 low-income students are not receiving much needed services because of a $30K shortfall, BUT the problem is the under-funding of special education NOT the cost of special education. It is wrong to blame special education for the lack of funds.

    If there weren’t laws regarding special education, administrators would always cut the programs that benefit fewer students, i.e. special education. It’s called the tyranny of the majority.

  3. I think that fewer kids would need spec ed for “learning disabilities” if schools made better curriculum choices in ES-MS reading and math. Lots of kids fall through the cracks with “balanced literacy” and the various fuzzy math programs. Better instructional methods would help also; lots of kids are unable to discover their own math facts and algorithms, groupwork likely means pooling their ignorance, and both are highly inefficient.

    Also, ed schools are not doing a decent job of ensuring that spec ed teachers have the necessary knowledge and skills. I speak as a relative of a dyslexic kid for whom the school’s spec ed teachers simply gave her answers, since they had no idea how to teach her suitable strategies. After several – very expensive- years of private tutoring, she learned suitable strategies and entered MS needing no spec ed assistance and is now successful in college.

    It is pretty radioactive to mention, but there is also a huge amount of money being spent at the bottom of the curve, on kids whose cognitive, emotional and/or physical deficits are so great that they will always require custodial care and therefore should never enter the educational system at all. Assistance with respite care/personal hygiene/feeding etc. should be handled through HHS, not education. The next group above that is unable to handle abstractions and should not be in a regular academic placement, but in special programs designed to their abilities and prepare them for employment.

  4. “I think that fewer kids would need spec ed for “learning disabilities” if schools made better curriculum choices in ES-MS reading and math. Lots of kids fall through the cracks with “balanced literacy” and the various fuzzy math programs. Better instructional methods would help also; lots of kids are unable to discover their own math facts and algorithms, groupwork likely means pooling their ignorance, and both are highly inefficient.”

    Amen! If our school had provided direct instruction in flexible proficiency grouping classes, I probably would not have pushed to have my D classified special ed. Instead, the school spent all sorts of resources to pull out my D for special instruction in small groups. Meanwhile, she would also need extra help to keep up with lessons she would miss when she was pulled out. what a mess.

    My school district has a reputation for very good special ed services, but there have been plenty of times when I demonstrated more knowledge about special ed aw, testing and instructional methods than they did. Of course, it’s often to their advantage to act dumb about these matters, since most parents will usually not challenge them very vigorously.

  5. I think we need to end the “free” part of the FAPE mandate and start charging parents on a sliding scale for special ed. Affluent families are gaming the current system and charging them their fair share of the excess costs would do a lot to end that kind of abuse.

  6. Special education costs are at the crux of the debate and the misunderstanding of school funding. For years now, critics in the business world have argued that education spending has increased exponentially with no clear increases in results – they believe they’re not getting any more bang for the buck. The problem has long been that spending increased for special education in ways that aren’t going to produce standardized results, especially from testing.

  7. Inclusion seems to be part of the problem. While it’s understandable that most parents don’t want their high needs child in a sn ghetto and isolated from the other non-sn kids, mainstreaming them into ordinary classrooms seems like a really expensive alternative.

  8. I don’t think it is the children of affluent parents who are in special ed for the most part. Just my observation, but some of these issues are hereditary. I had a parent this year mention that she couldn’t help her son in my class, which is very, very basic, because the material was so far over her head. We’re talking vocabulary work, here, not even answering reading comprehension questions.

    And you can’t send them to special schools because that would not be LRE.

  9. Part of the problem is that “disability” covers a very wide spectrum of issues. I don’t think anyone thinks that money spent on special ed for blind, deaf, or mobility-impaired students isn’t entirely appropriate; the difficulty comes with ill-defined learning disabilties that are only partially addressed by special education, and with severe disabilities that are likely to prevent the student from being self-supporting no matter how many services are delivered. Numerically, it’s the LD kids that predominate.

  10. Affluent families are gaming the current system and charging them their fair share of the excess costs would do a lot to end that kind of abuse.

    Most affluent families would then take every available measure to avoid bearing a “special-needs” child, and the problem would become one associated mostly with the poor.  The victims would then be swept under the rug.

    This may actually have a set of causes in public policy.  Medicaid pays for intensive neonatal services for very premature babies; the babies now survive, but many have multiple developmental deficits.  When they become school age, they need whole new sets of publicly-financed interventions.  At some point they either age out or drop out of school and need more interventions, whether social or criminal.

    Paying the poor and unprepared to use Norplant looks like a good investment.

  11. I don’t think it is the children of affluent parents who are in special ed for the most part.

    In the state of Connecticut, the ultra-ritzy suburb of Greenwich has a percentage of children in special ed that is more than 6 times the rate of students in the dirt-poor city of Bridgeport. Rich parents know how to game the system and the best way to put a kibosh on that is to start charging them a portion of the excess costs to have their kid in special ed.

  12. Cranberry says:

    Engineer-Poet, I believe most affluent families already “take every available measure to avoid bearing a “special-needs” child.”

    Flagging SAT test takers who received extra time would help curtail some affluent parents’ interest in having their child identified as special-needs. Some of the interest is strategic.

    Different communities have different patterns of sped identification. In our neck of the woods, the affluent communities are more likely to have parents pushing for IEPs, and you can see it in the percentages of sped cases when it’s reported by district. Means-testing the services offered would not place a financial burden on those who are not affluent. It would, however, help to restrain the intimidation-by-lawyer game which does happen in some districts. It would also defend the school system’s limited resources. (Note that the truly rich are likely to send their children to private schools anyway.)

    If the sixth grade loses a classroom teacher, all the students suffer, because class sizes rise. If the school system institutes fees for transportation, sports, and extracurricular activities, in order to balance the budget, the children of those who are not affluent suffer particularly, because their access to what should be a free education is limited.

    Congress should have lived up to the promises of 40% funding in IDEA. I think this debate would look very different had that happened. It would be a different world if parents didn’t have to do battle with the very schools which are supposed to educated their children. It isn’t supposed to all come from the same budget, but in practice it does.

    A separate authority, with the ability to diagnose conditions and pay for treatment, would change the game. Theoretically, I would also think that a separate authority would be more likely to dispense more funds to students from struggling families and districts, and it would make it easier for a teacher to refer a child for assessment. At present, every IEP could cost a district money, and I have the impression that in some districts, administrators don’t want more cases to be diagnosed.

  13. Unfortunately, we can debate this whole issue til we are blue in the faces, but until the Federal DOE is abolished and school funding is returned entirely to the states and districts, only more of these well-intentioned yet horribly-restricting policies will be passed.

  14. Engineer-Poet:

    Medicaid pays for intensive neonatal services for very premature babies; the babies now survive, but many have multiple developmental deficits. When they become school age, they need whole new sets of publicly-financed interventions.

    I’m afraid the data don’t bear you out. From an email discussion with Sullivan who blogs at Leftbrain/Rightbrain

    I have the NHES data available.
    http://nces.ed.gov/nhes/dataproducts.asp#2007dp
    National Household Education Survey.

    In general, 6.9% of the kids had IEP’s

    for the premature and low birth weight children, the numbers are low, so these may not be statistically significantly different from the above number

    8.9% of kids born >4 weeks premature have IEP’s
    12.5% of kids born <3 pounds have IEP's
    11.8% of kids born <5 pounds have IEP's.

    Data below:

    Looking at the NHES dataset (2007)

    168 kids were born more than 4 weeks premature.
    15 kids born more than 4 weeks premature had IEP's
    8.9%

    General population
    737 kids have IEP's
    10682 kids total
    6.9%

    Kids born < 3 pounds

    24 total
    3 of these have IEP's
    12.5% (but really low statistics)

    kids born <5 pounds
    161 total
    19 have IEP's
    11.8%

    Another way to look at it–

    number of kids with birth weight under 5 pounds 162/10682 (1.5%)

    number of kids with IEP's 737
    number of kids with IEP's and birth weight under five pounds 19
    19/737 or 2.5%

    A notable fraction of the kids with IEP's are low birth weight.

    But, are they a large fraction of the total with IEP’s? No.

  15. What Momof4said:

    I think that fewer kids would need spec ed for “learning disabilities” if schools made better curriculum choices in ES-MS reading and math. Lots of kids fall through the cracks with “balanced literacy” and the various fuzzy math programs. Better instructional methods would help also; lots of kids are unable to discover their own math facts and algorithms, groupwork likely means pooling their ignorance, and both are highly inefficient.

    The two most-affluent k-8 districts in my neck of the woods are using the same sorry reading curriculum they were when my daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia 14 years ago. Most of the parents in those two districts pursue private, effective remediation.

    However, they also pursue diagnoses and IEPs — why? Because the parental talk network points out that having accommodations for standardized testing such as SATs & APs will level the playing field for their children.

    Also, keep in mind that the majority of children in special ed are there for “learning disabilities” and the majority of those are for reading. Don’t forget that SpEd teachers are not trained to teach reading.

  16. On a timely note, I learned today that the parameters for 504 accomodations are now expanding. Fun.

    In reality, even with a documented disability, it is VERY difficult to get extended time on a College Board test. That doesn’t mean a lot of parents don’t try for it — I waste a lot of time in meetings for juniors whose parents have suddenly decided the kid has a reading disability.

  17. I had HS kids when the College Board stopped flagging tests given on non-standard conditions and a number of parents immediately pursued IEPs so their kids could get extra time; don’t know how successful it is now. It certainly was a motivator then.

  18. Another facet of the spec ed issue is its relationship to student conduct, particularly but not exclusively when the designation includes a behavioral component. It gets used as a bludgeon; parents/kids insist that they can’t be disciplined because of the IEP. I’ve also seen it worked in reverse; parental refusal to allow their child to be evaluated for behavioral issues (example; a first-grader regularly attacking classmates/adults with scissors, teeth, fists) because they feel their kid is being discriminated against (racism etc.). It’s grossly unfair to the “regular” kids to allow these kinds of disruptions. Someone needs to inject a little reality into the LRE issue. Much boils down to the amount of backbone and intestinal fortitude of the administrators at all levels; too many lack both and also lack common sense

  19. From momof4

    I had HS kids when the College Board stopped flagging tests given on non-standard conditions and a number of parents immediately pursued IEPs so their kids could get extra time; don’t know how successful it is now. It certainly was a motivator then.

    Hypothesis #1: Extra time (time-and-a-half or double time) will not improve SAT / AP scores for students who DO NOT have neurocognitive learning challenges (specific learning disability–reading (dyslexia in the common parlance); attentional and/or executive function issues (ADHD in the common parlance)

    Hypothesis #2: Extra time (time-and-a-half or double time) will not improve SAT / AP scores for students who DO NOT have neurocognitive learning challenges (specific learning disability–reading (dyslexia in the common parlance); attentional and/or executive function issues (ADHD in the common parlance).

    Here’s your challenge, class: find studies that tested: #1, #2, or both.

    I’ll be waiting.

  20. cranberry says:

    Is this a trick question? Aren’t 1 & 2 the same?

  21. Looked like it. However, I agree. Extra time on the SAT doesn’t help kids–even many ADHD kids–unless they specifically need more time to access cognitive processes.

    The real issue is that the states shouldn’t be responsible for teaching kids outside a range of “normal”. The feds want to give them the right of equal access, the feds can pay–for all of it.

  22. Cranberry says:

    Whether or not extra time has been shown in studies to improve standardized test scores is beside the point. If parents believe that it would give their children an advantage, some will try to game the system.

    After all, people debate whether coaching improves standardized test performance *significantly*, and to me, the question really hasn’t settled. Nevertheless, there’s a multi-million (billion?) industry devoted to cramming for the test.

    Efficacy of extra time is beside the point. Parents trying to game the system will pursue anything which will improve their children’s chances. This only applies, of course, to the subset of affluent parents who pursue a special needs certification with the SAT in mind. Even if the College Board sets the standards so high that very few receive extra time, the schools have to deal with the legal process which ambitious parents can set in motion.

  23. Have any of you waxing opinionated ever tried to get the extended time provisions for a kid who needs it on a College Board test? Ain’t as simple as you make it sound. BTDT, with a kid labeled autistic who could have used the extra time on the writing portion. Unfortunately, because he was labeled autistic, he didn’t have the main credential that the College Board holds as important–recent administration of a WJ III Test of Achievement supporting extended time (or a WIAT II). Timed test anxiety was a definite factor for this kid, and he chose not to take the SATs and go the community college route instead…which has turned out to possibly be not the best choice for him.

    Those of you in affluent areas citing ambitious parents using IEPs to get accommodations on College Board tests are the exception, not the norm (hint: look at the location of cases cited. Look, guys, you sound like the Manhattanites stereotyped in The New Yorker maps of the world where Manhattan/New England is the reality for the whole world. No, it isn’t. You’re not even a majority). In the rest of America, many parents really don’t want to have their kids identified if they can avoid it, and they want their kids performing up to grade level ASAP. Working class parents, especially second generation sped parents, really want to avoid the perceived stigma.

    My caseload has very few (as in: none!) of the alleged faux sped kids, especially those affected by poor teaching. We’ve done intensive Title I flooding in the elementary school feeding into the middle school, attempted several different ways to teach these kids to read, and I’m trying still different ways (in the small amount of time I have now that my hours are cut and I’m managing a full time case load on a part-time schedule) to remediate. My district has moved to a Patterns of Strengths and Weaknesses model using the WJ III Cognitive and Achievement tests to identify students, and what is coming up more and more is that the kids with the greatest learning disabilities that don’t respond to remediation have weaknesses in either long term or short term memory processes, with a lesser effect from processing speed. An additional factor lurks in how these kids process visual-auditory learning, and that’s tied into memory as well.

    Poor performance based on lack of prior knowledge or need of explicit teaching can be addressed. Memory and processing issues, including visual-auditory learning issues…not so easy (despite Orton-Gillingham claimants, I’ve worked with a student receiving O-G training outside school, and the effect after four years? Not that great). Neuropsychological methodology addressing issues that those advocating strict high-stakes testing want to handwave away (i.e., emotional/social components, including behavioral retraining) may be an important factor because memory structures can be negatively impacted by stress and emotions.

    What may work is aggressive early interventions that continue on into middle school for students considered to be at risk, not just economically but in other areas. There’s at least one study out there which supports this notion. But it’s not as sexy as high-stakes testing to the current reformers.

    Another factor is, simply, that some kids have a delayed developmental response to reading acquisition. I have seen those kids “switch on” in middle school and the effect is rather like someone waved a magic wand to make it happen. But these were not kids who had outside teaching such as Sylvan; what they did have were parents who encouraged a love of reading. Then, suddenly, they found books that they wanted to read, they immersed themselves in that series over a summer, and by the end of the summer, they were readers. They’ll still need explicit teaching to help them learn how to analyze nonfiction appropriately, but the “learn to read” portion has clicked in, and they’re ready to read to learn.

  24. Sorry, proofreading error on my part.

    Should have been:

    Hypothesis #1: Extra time (time-and-a-half or double time) will not improve SAT / AP scores for students who DO NOT have neurocognitive learning challenges (specific learning disability–reading (dyslexia in the common parlance); attentional and/or executive function issues (ADHD in the common parlance)

    Hypothesis #2: Extra time (time-and-a-half or double time) will not improve SAT / AP scores for students who DO have neurocognitive learning challenges (specific learning disability–reading (dyslexia in the common parlance); attentional and/or executive function issues (ADHD in the common parlance).

  25. I’m coming late to this thread, but I suspect Liz’s #2 may be true for some ADHD kids. I have a younger relative with ADHD who doesn’t want extra time for tests. She needs to just sit down and do the work–she thinks that extra time just hurts her ability to focus. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that given extra time, I (being non-ADHD) could have done a lot better on the math SAT than I did, because the SAT is really only hard because of the time limitations. Take away the time limitations, and the math SAT problems are trivial (or at least they were back in the day).

  26. Mike Curtis says:

    If you don’t know the answer to a question, or you don’t know how to solve a math problem, then extending your test time merely gives you more time to guess.

    In my experience, the award of extra test time, or permitting the special student to go to a “resource room” to take a test, serves more to appease parents than anything practical.

  27. This turned into duelling opinions about accommodations for standardized entrance-exam tests such as the SAT.

    Why should this issue be decided by duelling opinons? What does the research say about longer times (non-speeded) and performance, for students with and without disability?

    It’s irresponsible to rely upon “common sense” — that extended time would also increase test scores for students without disabilities. If the experiment isn’t done, you don’t know.

    As it turns out, there is a modest amount of literature:

    The best place to start may be

    Lovett BG (2010)Extended Time Testing Accommodations for Students With Disabilities Answers to Five Fundamental Questions REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH December 2010 vol. 80 no. 4 611-638

    (note, I’ve only read the abstract as I don’t have journal access right now.

    Here’s the URL for access if you have a subscription:

    http://rer.sagepub.com/content/80/4/611.full.pdf+html