How to cut special-ed spending without sacrificing quality


1. Focus regulatory oversight on outcomes, not inputs.
2. Don’t restrict grant dollars to the special-ed department.
3. Redefine highly qualified teachers under NCLB.
4. Collect different types of data.
5. Create unambiguous standards for eligibility and services.

Special-ed regulations ensure that every dollar available to special-education programs is spent, but no one asks if those dollars were spent wisely.

Maintenance of effort (MOE) rules, part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, are an example of this. State departments of education audit school districts to ensure that districts did not reduce special-ed spending from previous years.

“While there are lots of ins and outs to the law, most special-education directors interpret the intent that increased cost-effectiveness means increased (and unwelcome) state attention,” the primer notes. “On a practical level, once a service is added to an IEP, it is very difficult for a district to cut back without a parent’s consent. Even if a student is doing well, most parents understandably want the help to continue, so costs keep increasing year by year.”

“The premise is that as long as we spend the same or more, we must be serving the kids well—and we know that’s not true,” Levenson said. “Maintenance of effort rules are extraordinarily complex; there are about four different ways of calculating how much you spend, and 12 different ways of determining whether you’ve spent more or less.”

Although special-ed leaders may not particularly like MOE requirements, the rules are not an obstacle to streamlining special-ed spending.

“The biggest obstacle is overcoming the feeling that we’re doing this just to save money,” Levenson said. “If you can’t raise achievement at the same time that you’re trying to manage the budget, you will not be successful—nor should you be successful.”

Laura Ascione

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