It is challenging, but not impossible, to reduce special-ed spending while increasing student achievement, a new primer says.

As school districts grow accustomed to doing more with less, special-education programs are dealing with their own unique set of challenges—and one expert has proposed several solutions to rein in special-ed spending without reducing program quality.

The recently published “Something Has Got to Change: Rethinking Special Education,” a primer from Nathan Levenson, a former superintendent of public schools in Arlington, Mass., and the American Enterprise Institute’s Future of American Education Project, offers practical solutions to tame out-of-control spending on special-education programs while serving special-needs students better.

Levenson, who is managing director of the District Management Council, argues that schools are often wary of cutting special-ed costs because they fear retaliation from the parents of special-needs students. Special-ed spending has increased steadily, sometimes without regard for program effectiveness. But through a handful of steps, school districts can increase the effectiveness of their special-education programs while cutting costs at the same time, he said.

“Nothing in special education is easy, but it is possible to make things better for students, especially while managing the budget better as well,” Levenson said, identifying rising special-ed costs as a huge challenge facing schools.

Funding pools are shrinking, and costs are predicted to rise faster in coming years—and still, “achievement for students with special needs isn’t good enough,” he added.

Special-needs students fall into two categories: a smaller group of students who have more severe disabilities and require more intervention and higher per-pupil expenditures, and a larger group of students with mild to moderate needs. But the number of students with severe disabilities is growing larger and at a faster rate.

The primer identifies four areas of best practices that can help schools reduce special-ed budgets and improve achievement.

1. Focus on reading and integration with general education.

This step can be counterintuitive, Levenson said, because the primary goal is to raise the achievement of students with special needs. But many changes must come from within general education, he said. Groups and committees such as the National Reading Panel have outlined effective programs to raise student achievement in reading; 40 percent of all special-needs students have reading difficulty.

“If we can teach kids to read, we’re going to change their lives for the better,” Levenson said, adding that English teachers and other general-education teachers should play a larger role in the delivery of educational services to special-needs students. In too many districts, Levenson said, “special-education teachers are asked to do all the heavy lifting; they’re the primary instructors for math, English, social studies, and science. … Special-education teachers bring a lot to the table, but they’re not math and English experts.”