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How to cut special-ed spending without sacrificing quality

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.”

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:

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.”

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Laura Ascione

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