How to cut special-ed spending without sacrificing quality

2. Reallocate resources and and staff deployment.

This strategy includes rethinking the roles of special-education teachers, paraprofessionals, and therapists, as well as general-education instructors. The largest component of special-ed spending in most districts is staff. And, Levenson said, it can be surprising how little oversight, management, and forethought goes into assigning and scheduling staff for special-education programs.

Class size is hotly debated in all arenas. In many districts, some speech therapists might serve 15 to 18 students, while in another school in that same district a therapist might have to serve 35 students. “If we brought the kind of focus that we do to general-education staffing to special-education staffing, there are significant advantages for students and the budget,” Levenson said.

3. Design and apply measures of effectiveness.

“Nothing is more expensive than paying for a program that is not bringing about an increase in student achievement, and nothing is more unfair to a student than to continue with the service that is not bringing about an increase in student achievement,” Levenson said.

Very few districts have actually measured what special-ed strategies are effective. Many districts embrace co-teaching between a general-education teacher and a special-education teacher, which can be very effective, but not all districts examine the practice to gauge its true effectiveness. More comparative data, as well as achievement data, would lead to better decision-making in terms of your special-ed budget, he said.

4. Align management skills with responsibilities for a better organizational structure.

Being a special-ed director “is an incredibly difficult job,” Levenson said. Managing compliance, managing test scores, and creating budgets can all appear on a special-ed director’s task list, but this person is not necessarily both a math teacher and a financial guru.

“We’re asking special-education departments to do things way beyond their training, and they need a larger team with wider skills,” he said.

Policy implications for special ed

“School districts can implement changes to raise achievement of students with special needs while reducing costs, but it’s not easy,” according to the primer.

But state and federal agencies can do more with less, and they can make that step easier with five changes:

Laura Ascione

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