Report: Special Ed Can Do More with Less

Published October 5, 2012

More special education spending doesn’t necessarily mean a better education for disabled children, a new Fordham Institute study has found.

Special ed funding varies widely from district to district, and if high-spending districts spent the median amount, taxpayers would save $10 billion, the study found.

The report called for an end to federal “maintenance of effort” laws, which require schools not spend less on special education than they did the previous year.

“[School districts] can save a ton of money and not hurt program quality,” said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, who coauthored the report’s introduction. “There’s some specific advice in here for schools about how to do special ed cost-effectively.”

Difficult Conversation
It’s hard to discuss special ed funding efficiency, Petrilli said, because it’s often seen as attempting to shortchange special-needs students. But cutting costs doesn’t necessarily mean reducing quality.

“This is not third-rail,” Petrilli said. “We are committed to quality, but it’s okay to also be committed to cost-effectiveness.”

Schools can care for special-needs children without endless expense, said Jonathan Butcher, education director of the Goldwater Institute.

“There are better ways to serve these kids than to just pour money into a system that hasn’t changed for 100 years,” Butcher said. “There are ways to give parents more options, to give kids an experience that is more tailored to what they need.”

‘Alternate Universes’
The study followed ten pairs of school districts with similar demographics—socioeconomic populations, sizes, and percentages of special-needs students.

“In each pair, one district’s special-needs students achieved more learning than the other district’s students … while spending the same or less than the district with lesser results,” the study said.

The biggest surprise, Petrilli said, was how much the expensive districts spent above the median and the huge variations in costs between districts.

“You see differences for regular education: class sizes, for example. Some school districts are wealthier, or whatever,” he said. “Those differences are dwarfed when it comes to special education. It’s like the school districts are living in alternate universes.”

Different approaches to special ed account for much of the variation, he said. A co-teaching program is “incredibly expensive,” he noted. In some districts, special ed teams prescribe more speech therapy, and thus will employ more speech therapists, he said. He chalked this up to “tradition and habit.”

Federal Regulations Wasteful            

Because more spending doesn’t mean better education, the study calls for an end to federal “maintenance of effort” requirements. These limit schools’ and lawmakers’ ability to respond to individual student needs, Butcher said.

“That’s just not going to get us anywhere except to more spending,” he said. “They’re a burden on taxpayers.”

Tom Parrish, managing research scientist for the American Institutes for Research, agrees, saying local districts should work toward special ed efficiency by keeping costs stable while improving their programs, he said.          

“[The report author] was saying there’s no reason why special ed should be held harmless while other programs aren’t, and I understand that sentiment,” he said. “If federal legislators want to take this on, fine, but I don’t see this as a very likely path.”

If the “maintenance of effort” requirement doesn’t change, he said, districts should focus on producing more without increasing expenditures.

State lawmakers could financially incentivize programs that net higher-than-predicted results, he suggested.

Mislabeling Kids
Students without learning disabilities are often labeled special-needs when traditional schools serve them poorly, Butcher said. 

“It is not uncommon for state policymakers, those that are interested in a choice program, to start with attempting to pass a program specifically for kids with special needs. I think they start there because, politically speaking, there tends to be less opposition,” Butcher said.

“Even the traditional schools recognize that students with special needs often need more than they can offer, and they need something very specific,” he said. “I think the downside of that is that often it ends there. You’ll pass a voucher program for students with special needs, then not follow up the next year.”


Learn more:
“Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education,” Fordham Institute, September 2012:

Image by Nicole Mays.