Has special education become the sacred cow of education funding?

In an editorial this week, Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argue that special education’s insulation from most spending reductions is a mistake.

They maintain that the assurance of funding built into federal education law through the “maintenance of effort” or MOE requirement “handcuffs states and districts by requiring that special-ed spending never decline from one year to the next. In times of plenty, this mandate discourages efforts to make productivity gains; when revenues shrink, it means that special-education spending will consume an ever-growing an ever-growing slice of school budgets.”

I’m sure that special ed advocates will find much to discuss in the editorial, but I found one line surprising: In explaining why U.S. Ed Secretary Arne Duncan backed away from undoing the MOE requirement, Finn and Petrilli blame “the powerful special-education lobby, which refused to accept anything other than expenditures escalating into perpetuity.”

In my days covering individual school systems, parents of students with special needs never seemed to carry great clout.  They spent a lot of time advocating for their kids. Some would describe walking into school conference rooms for scheduled meetings to find a retinue of staff at the ready to explain why what they wanted for their children was not justified. At the same time, schools had to deal with parents with unrealistic demands.

Here is an excerpt of the Fordham piece. If you are interested, here is the full piece.

While economic realities alone should be reason enough to jettison requirements that dictate a spend-spend-spend approach to special ed, a new Fordham study by Nathan Levenson provides an even more compelling reason for doing away with MOE: Spending more on special ed simply may not do much for kids.

How is this possible? While public education is never very hospitable to innovation, efficiency, or productivity boosters, special education has generally been downright hostile. Despite statutory and regulatory tweaks from time to time, our approach hasn’t really changed since the federal law was passed more than thirty-five years ago, even as so much else in K–12 education has changed in important ways. That does not, regrettably, mean our traditional approach has worked well. Indeed, change is desperately needed in this corner of the K–12 world, as any look at the (woeful) achievement data or (skyrocketing) spending data for special-needs students demonstrates. To oversimplify just a bit, general (i.e., “regular”) education is now focused on academic outcomes, but special education remains fixated on inputs, ratios, and services.

That’s a shame, since the same basic dysfunctions that ail general education afflict special education too: middling (or worse) teacher quality; an inclination to throw “more people” at any problem; a reluctance to look at cost-effectiveness; a crazy quilt of governance and decision-making authorities; a tendency to add rather than replace or redirect; and a full-on fear of results-based accountability. Yet the fates (as well as the budgets) of general and special education are joined. In many schools, the latter is the place to stick the kids who have been failed by the former—a major cause of the sky-high special-education-identification rates in many states and districts. Further, there exists in many locales the unrealistic expectation that every neighborhood (and charter) school should be able to serve every youngster with special needs at a high level.

Some districts hire almost three times more special-ed teachers (per thousand students) than do others. The difference for paraprofessionals (teachers’ aides) is greater than four times. Levenson calculates that, if the high-spending districts adjusted their staffing levels in line with national norms, the country could save (or redirect) $10 billion annually. That’s not chump change! For example, it’s more than twice the total sums invested (over multiple years) in Race to the Top.

The potential for additional savings—and better services for kids—is greater still. To its discredit, longstanding federal law bars the teams that develop Individualized Education Programs for disabled pupils from considering the cost of the interventions and services that they are recommending. Untangling federal barriers to efficiency and effectiveness in special education is the job of Congress—yet no one in Washington seems the least bit interested in tackling an IDEA reauthorization anytime soon. That’s a huge mistake.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

153 comments Add your comment

Pride and Joy

September 7th, 2012
4:19 am

It’s a sad day at Get Schooled when we beat up on kids with special needs. A new low.

Elizabeth

September 7th, 2012
6:15 am

Yes, it has. Sixty per cent of money funded for education goes to special education. So sixty per cent of the money goes to ten per cent of the students. How is that fair? I have no problem with special students getting an education. But the proportion is way out of hand. And as for behavioral disorder, NO money should go for that. Kids should behave or be sent to an alternative educational setting. Also severely disabled kids should not be able to stay in school at the taxpayers’ expense until they are 21. That is simply free babysitting for parents. Regular kids have rights too– and theirs are subjugated to special ed kids who disrupt the teaching/learning process every day.

Carl

September 7th, 2012
6:32 am

There is no hope for government education.
Our only hope is PRIVATE vouchers …

mountain man

September 7th, 2012
6:37 am

We spend much more money on SPED students than is justified. Some spending is made to try to educate students beyond their ability. Often, as Elizabeth says, parents just want an expensive baby-sitting service. Parents of SPED students often sue a school district, and then get to send their kids to expensive, for-profit, out-of-state schools set up especially for them. So why not segregate SPED students into their own classrooms? That is how it used to be. When “mainstreaming” took place, then regular students started feeling the brunt of caring for the SPED student.

mountain man

September 7th, 2012
6:44 am

Another unfunded mandate – the Federal government passes IDEA and then the local property owners have to pay for it in increased taxes. And because people finally say “Enough is Enough” on taxes, the only place to get money to pay for all these SPED students is to take it out of the funding for the regular students. There is no accounting to get the maximum out of existing spending. SPED parents just want the best for their children (understandable), but they want it at the expense of the regular student population.

Beenthere

September 7th, 2012
6:45 am

It is all because of the Inclusion model being used currently in schools. Regular ed teachers with Inclusion need support for SPED students so regular ed students are not neglected. Should we go back to SPED students in self contained classrooms? SPED parents have the strongest lobby in education these days. They are responsible for the money demanded and spent.

catlady

September 7th, 2012
6:47 am

Yet we continue to try to find ways to “control” sped funding. Case in point: RTI. RTI’s main goal is to keep kids from getting the sped help they need. (When a kid is helped under RTI, there are none of those pesky sped due process problems)

Then there is “mainstreaming.” More money is given the school system to mainstream kids for whom it is completely inappropriate. This means the burden of “paying” for the sped kid is placed on the regular teacher and the regular kids. ALL kids, not just sped, deserve a FREE and Appropriate Public Education!

Then there is the ploy of saying, “We don’t provide BD placement in a separate room.” So the BD kids are “served” by being inflicted on the others, and outbursts are just accepted.

And of course there is the IEP, which can be written to provide the least services possible.

The ways to avoid doing the right thing are many.

mountain man

September 7th, 2012
6:48 am

What if the parents of regular students took the same route as SPED parents – sue when they don’t get what they want. I want to see discipline problems handled and removed from the classroom. Should I sue (sorry you don’t have any “standing”)? What has happened is that SPED parents HAVE sued – and WON – so now that encourages other SPED parents to sue when they don’t get everything they want for their own child.

mountain man

September 7th, 2012
6:50 am

Remember- the Georgia Constitution only guarantees an “adequate” education. It is the Federal IDEA that is driving all this. Maybe a repeal of IDEA is in order (and after that, EMTALA).

Pride and Joy

September 7th, 2012
6:52 am

catlady you say that “ALL kids, not just sped, deserve a FREE and Appropriate Public Education!”
There is no such thing as a FREE education.
Some people who have no income and are dependent on the tax payers for all their income do get a free education but somebody has to pay for it and that somebody is me and you. There “ain’t no” FREE.
Remember, your property taxes may be low but mine aren’t. I pay two sets of residential property taxes on the two homes I own and my children do not attend public schools.
There “AIN’T NO” FREE EDUCATION.

Pride and Joy

September 7th, 2012
6:55 am

All these comments picking on the special education students are shocking and revolting.
Dear Lord, it sounds like many posters want to go back to Spartan times and toss the non-perfect babies over a cliff on the rocks to die.
Hitler loaded special education kids on a bus and sent them to their deaths.
Looks like some posters here wold rather do that than risk a dime educating someone who needs it.

cris

September 7th, 2012
7:42 am

This is a hard one…I have had sped kids in my general ed classroom who have done great – a chance for them to be in a regular classroom and participate as their peers do (and learn how to get along with each other and accept each other). Then again, I have had so many sped kids at once that a parapro was assigned – a good parapro works wonders, but there are some who simply come into the room, then sit in a corner and read a book instead of taking an active part in the student’s education (waste of money and resources). I have also had sped students with behavioral issues (not academic ones) who are followed by their own parapro all day long….another waste. I want to do right by these kids and what many don’t realize is that their parents are looking at a lifetime of care for their children…would I want my mentally handicapped child to attend school until they were 21? Umm yes, I would. But I also know from personal, daily, repeated experience that these kids usually get the lion’s share of attention and consideration at the expense of regular ed students who are equally deserving of my time and attention. No good answer for this one…..IMHO.

Mountain Man

September 7th, 2012
7:51 am

“Has special education become the sacred cow of education funding?”

YES!

Mountain Man

September 7th, 2012
7:51 am

“But I also know from personal, daily, repeated experience that these kids usually get the lion’s share of attention and consideration at the expense of regular ed students who are equally deserving of my time and attention.”

There you have it folks.

Mountain Man

September 7th, 2012
7:53 am

“I want to do right by these kids and what many don’t realize is that their parents are looking at a lifetime of care for their children”

So you want us all to suffer to give them a break at least for the first 21 years?

cris

September 7th, 2012
7:59 am

no @Mountain Man….I just want people to have a little compassion for a situation where there is really no one to blame…silly me

oldtimer

September 7th, 2012
8:05 am

I once worked in a rural poor school system where 25% of the student population was in special education. Many of the ones I worked with….were naughty young men.( 10-11th graders) who did not want to behave in a reuglar class. they got extra help to pass the state tests and complete homework.

Do the math

September 7th, 2012
8:12 am

“I want to do right by these kids and what many don’t realize is that their parents are looking at a lifetime of care for their children”

That was the choice those parents made. My SPED (gifted) child has to deal with 31 other students in her class, in order to accomodate the child whose parents insist must be placed into a resource Precalculus class (class size of 1). If it’s written into the IEP, the school has to accomodate that. Talk about misuse of resources.

Pluto

September 7th, 2012
8:12 am

Solutions

September 7th, 2012
8:14 am

and people wonder why Gov Deal declined to expand Medicaid! The feds are not good partners in anything, they want to make all the rules, rules that our binding on the partner, but not on the worthless, over rated feds. Just say “NO” to Washington on special ed and Medicaid expansion!

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence

September 7th, 2012
8:39 am

One of ‘em. Most unfortunately for the special-needs and regular kids, the number of ‘em exceeds one by a considerable quantity.

In the GAPubEd pasture, I see the following sacred cows gorging themselves: family members, special “friends,” interscholastic athletics, school bands, the GSBA, its board attorneys’ affiliate, the GSSA, GAE, PAGE, GAEL, the GA chapter of AIA, GA’s construction companies and their subcontractors, publishers of instructional and test media, school vehicle manufacturers et al.

How much more money might we divert to instruction were we more frugal in our “feeding” of these sacred cows?

Centrist

September 7th, 2012
8:54 am

Just from a liberal asking this question should yield an obvious “Of course” response.

Truth in Moderation

September 7th, 2012
8:56 am

The real problem is that the SPED population is growing at epidemic rates. If you think things are bad now, just wait…… Let’s focus on the CAUSES of this epidemic. Perhaps our love affair with vaccines, nuclear power, and manufactured food should be reexamined.

Jordan Kohanim

September 7th, 2012
8:59 am

I think there are other sacred cows that need to be removed before we start slashing special education. Building expenditures for instance. We have too many school buildings, and yet more are being built all the time. Huge amounts of money are wasted each year on unnecessary technology that either does not get used or is not used effectively. Multiple new text-book adoptions, curriculum fads, testing fads are just a few of the major expenditures that could be examined before hacking into special education.

On the other hand, I also think the label “special education” is often misused. I have seen first hand that a small minority of parents use this label (that they paid for by taking their kid to a local doctor who is known to diagnose all children as ADD, ODD, or ADHD) to get special allowance for kids who don’t actually need them. The problem is that IDEA is poorly written and for that reason, lawyers are quick to step and sue the school for denying equal access.

It goes back to the litigious culture that exists in schools now. Schools are a giant pocket book that some people can not resist going after. This is not just special education parents, the majority of whom only want what is best for their child, it is all facets of society. Perhaps we should save the adoption of new textbooks for another few years and instead, hire better lawyers to defend our schools against unnecessary lawsuits. Schools can’t educate in a culture of fear.

Pride and Joy

September 7th, 2012
9:00 am

To Do the Math — your child is gifted and in a class with 31 students.
I was labeled “gifted” and put into a class with 40 kids.
I turned out OK.
I think your child will too.

Parent

September 7th, 2012
9:02 am

I think the real answer is I just turn my SPED child over to be a ward of the state. Wont save the government any money but hey won’t be my problem. Mountain Man seems to think I had a choice in having a child with disabilities – nope, no choice just the luck of the draw. Heck some political platforms are based on a fundamental belief of no choice.

I don’t expect more for my SPED kid (self contained classroom) then I do for my SPED kid (gifted) I just expect an adequate education and the same resources. If the resources cost more then maybe we should spend less on something else.

NONPC

September 7th, 2012
9:14 am

Spending more on special ed simply may not do much for kids.

Finally, someone is willing the voice the nonpc REALITY of the situation. The fact is, all special ed kids are unique.

Some can be helped to a great extent, and the money necessary to do so is well spent.

Some are only going to be able to learn the most rudimentary functions of life. Should a school system have to spend $500k+ to teach them that? Seriously?

Inman Park Boy

September 7th, 2012
9:23 am

The very first response is a very good indication of what schools have to deal with.

C Jae of EAV

September 7th, 2012
9:25 am

Without question I say yes “Special Education” has become a new sacred cow in public edu funding.

The why for me is simple. The legislative definition of “Special ducation” has been used to justify extra funding allowances and those extra fiscal resources have been used like a slush funds that’s leveraged to facilitate any number of things, most of which have little to do with providing additional supports/services to the students we presumed are targeted by the use of the term.

It appears to me the term “Special Education” is the slippery slope by which some legislators in GA have been pushing us closer to toward full scale implementation of public education voucher-like programs

skipper

September 7th, 2012
9:31 am

Of course there needs to be compassion, but many SPED parents don’t want justice; they want partiality. Some kids with minor disabilities are one thing….but I PERSONALLY was involved with one with a major disability and delusional parents. This person will not be a functioning member of society, and the parents acted as though the school should allocate all resources, available or not, to magically cure the situation. In today’s time, they would have gotten an attorney and won lifetime care…………..

Parent Too

September 7th, 2012
9:35 am

What is the difference in cost per student when you compare gifted resources to SPED resources. It should be the same since they are both on opposite ends of the curve.

Mountain Man

September 7th, 2012
9:44 am

“Looks like some posters here wold rather do that than risk a dime educating someone who needs it.”

It is not a “dime”, it is up to $30,000 per year. NO, I don’t want to mandate throwing them off a cliff – I just want the parents of a severly mentally retarded (go ahead, blast me for that one) child to realize that an “education” in a normal classroom is not helping their child. Why are they in that calculus class, anyway? I am sorry that some parents suffer the heartbreak of having to look after a disabled child, but why do the other students have to be dragged down because of it? If Congress thought that IDEA was such a good idea (pun intended), then why did they not attach a new increase in your income tax (to everyone) say, 1% increase across the board, and tell people that the money will be sent down to the local schools to educate SPED students. But design a system so they don’t hold back the regular students (and that does not just apply to SPED students).

Also, as someone pointed out, there is an exponential growth in children “diagnosed” with ADD, ADHD, BD and other “disabilities”. In the past, a good spanking “cured” these children. Now they have IEPs that the teacher has to follow or else the school gets sued! How does a teacher deal with 30 kids in her classroom and 10 of them have IEPs? (teachers?)

Mountain Man

September 7th, 2012
9:49 am

“If the resources cost more then maybe we should spend less on something else.”

THAT is exactly what is happening! A county spend an AVERAGE of $10,000 per child on education, but the average for a “normal” child is $2000 and the average for a SPED student is $30,000. And then the former suffers and we wonder why THEIR parents want to form a charter school!

Bill & Ed's Excellent Adventure

September 7th, 2012
9:50 am

The timing of this post is ironic, given the inclusion school my child attends is going through a very difficult period due to budget cuts. Staff, salaries & transportation have been cut. Now, the principal of over 30 years is abruptly retiring and going to work elsewhere. I’m guessing she’s retired to help the school keep other teachers & parapros from being RIF’d or let go.

When I was in high school, the special ed students were all in the same classroom, kept separate from regular ed. The inclusion environment is WAY better for both the special ed & typical children. This notion that the special ed children receive all the attention from the teachers & parapros is a TOTAL misconception.

Public schools are going through tough times, and I don’t think any program is going to be considered a “sacred cow” anymore…at least not in Georgia.

BDA

September 7th, 2012
9:57 am

So much I could share here regarding my experiences as a single mom of SPED child, one loaded with “issues” no doubt…and yeah, I “get it” that the regular ed population likely suffers some negative impact, some fallout…sure. Based on most of the comments here, I’m sensing a general undertone from the anti-SPED / non-SPED parents…that they feel slighted and highly inconvenienced by services supposedly being provided to SPED. My own experience has been well below satisfactory, and the results, or rather the LACK of..simply unacceptable! But more importantly, it’s sad. How I feel isn’t important; imagine how it must feel to be the struggling SPED student. And add to that feeling of inferiority…how frustrating it must feel to be that same child who the system has clearly failed! Too often, the services, the IEP, (ha ha) etc..are a JOKE. But try questioning or challenging for improvement in services, you’ll quickly realize it’s you against the system..and the system will confuse even the most intelligent parent with the terminology and phrasing of “your rights as a parent.” Talk about “CYA.” If the funding/services are as grossly misappropriated, unfair, and excessive in the eyes of the regular ed side, could it be that those funds are actually benefiting the administrators being well-paid to create LOTS of documents which look great on paper but in reality are worthless? So many SPED students leave with an education that is INFERIOR. At least the regular eds will leave with a SUPERIOR advantage in attaining QUALITY higher education. I can’t help it…I respect the stated opinions…but I am offended.

Mountain Man

September 7th, 2012
10:04 am

“no @Mountain Man….I just want people to have a little compassion for a situation where there is really no one to blame…silly me”

Compassion I can give you – but there needs to be a line when that compassion has a price tag. I cared for my wife for years when she was dying of breast cancer – I never asked everyone else to pay so that I could get personalized, special care for her – instead I had to suck it up and devote all my time to her care – just like parents of some SPED students have to do. I am sorry, but as someone says, it is the luck of the draw.

Mountain Man

September 7th, 2012
10:06 am

“The inclusion environment is WAY better for both the special ed & typical children.”

I am sorry – but I don’t believe that. My opinion is that it is WORSE for both parties.

Bill & Ed's Excellent Adventure

September 7th, 2012
10:19 am

“My opinion is that it is WORSE for both parties.”

Have any of your children attended an inclusion school? Have you worked/taught special ed children?

Solutions

September 7th, 2012
10:20 am

Special ed and mainstreaming is just another example of the intellectual leveling of our school system, with the goal of leveling our society. The cognitive elite are retarded in their education, while extra resources are spent on the cognitive deficient. The goal appears to be an equalization of IQ, but that is not going to happen. The cognitive elite will still have high IQ’s, but their skills will be less developed than they should be. Our society will pay for that underdevelopment in a lack of innovation, a lack of job creation, and a lack of global competitiveness. Ask yourself, is the special ed kid with an IQ of 85 going to start a business that employees 200 people, or is it the kid with an IQ of 125? We are short changing the kid with the IQ of 125 to benefit the kid with the IQ of 85.

Bill & Ed's Excellent Adventure

September 7th, 2012
10:29 am

Solutions – the inclusion school in our area is a choice school. Parents enter their children into a lottery to be able to attend. So, at least in this specific example, your argument is moot. I cannot speak for other school systems, but as far as I know, in Dekalb, a parent would not be forced to send their typical child (or “cognitive elite” as you clumsily state) to an inclusion school.

Mountain Man

September 7th, 2012
10:48 am

“So much I could share here regarding my experiences as a single mom of SPED child”

Sorry, I have to ask since it is a “hot-button” issue: how much support do you get from the father of your child?

Solutions

September 7th, 2012
10:50 am

Bill & Ed’s Excellent Adventure – The inclusion school does not exist in a vacuum, funding comes from some other part of the school system. I don’t have a problem with educating the special needs kids, just don’t spend excessive amounts of money on them at the expense of non special needs kids. Do not slow the development of the high IQ kids, they should advance as rapidly as possible. We are going to need their skills in the future, and if we short change them now, we cannot go back later and make up for it.

Bill & Ed's Excellent Adventure

September 7th, 2012
10:51 am

@Mtn man did I miss your response?

Have any of your children attended an inclusion school? Have you worked with/taught special ed children?

Mountain Man

September 7th, 2012
10:51 am

“a parent would not be forced to send their typical child to an inclusion school.”

I am confused since the whole idea of “mainstreaming” means that ALL public schools are “inclusion” schools. Your only choice if you DON’T want your regular child to be in a classroom that also includes SPED students is to home-school or maybe private school (or possibly charter school, thaough I can’t see that).

Bill & Ed's Excellent Adventure

September 7th, 2012
10:53 am

@Solutions please explain how systems are “slowing the development of the high IQ kids”…is this assessment based solely on the fact that special needs gets more of a budget? This seems like more of an assumption than a rule.

Mountain Man

September 7th, 2012
10:54 am

“Have any of your children attended an inclusion school? Have you worked with/taught special ed children?”

Define “inclusion school”. My children most likely went to public schools where SPED students were “mainstreamed”. If that is not an “inclusion school”, then No. And no, I have not worked with SPED students or taught them (unless you count having to deal with a son who was most likely ODD).

Michele

September 7th, 2012
10:54 am

You can talk about compassion, but often there is a necessity to look beyond the societal impact of always being compassionate and making out like everything in life is wonderful. Until you teach in a classroom with bright students who are forced to sit around while the special needs of one or two students are taken care of, you just don’t understand life in the school. Our educational system is currently being destroyed by a “one size fits all” cancer. Students are not “one size fits all.” There are special needs children. There are regular ed students. There are high achievers. There are gifted students. When you mash them all together, every group loses. This is precisely the direction Gwinnett County is taking, and I am sure the same is true throughout the Atlanta area. If it continues, we will never have a high achieving school system in the State of Georgia. I thoroughly agree with a previous poster that this is why there is such a craze towards charter schools, which I oppose. But, I fully understand why parents are trying to run away from the junk they are getting in Georgia schools.

catlady

September 7th, 2012
10:55 am

Good Mother: Get a clue. FAPE is the term bandied about for sped kids. The thing is, it should apply to all kids. Get off your tea party high horse!

cris

September 7th, 2012
11:00 am

There are great sped programs that prepare sped students to be functioning members of society at the level that they are capable of doing so… I support those fully. There are students that have ADHD, specific learning disabilities that with the right support from parents and teachers can make huge leaps and bounds. There are some kids that are profoundly disabled and they will never make gains as well as students whose parents have “bullied” their way into sped so that the school system has to take on the role of educator as well as caretaker….THESE are two examples of sped kids that bother me and that I feel we are wasting money and resources on. BUT can we do with a profoundly challenged child? I hate to think we would go back to institutions that locked them away for their entire life! As for the “bullies” well, I wish systems didn’t have to be so scared of lawsuits because there are people taking advantage – not many, but they are out there. Making my point a second time – there’s no easy, equitable solution here – such is life.

Lynn43

September 7th, 2012
11:01 am

This is a totally true situation. I watched it from beginning to the end. Child born blind and a complete “vegetable”. From the age of 3, school system was required to provide services-classroom and two teachers just for him. Child died right before his 21st birthday. Trying to be respectfully, the high school with which he was associated dedicated the yearbook to him and awarded him an honorary diploma. Mom was so mad that his picture in the yearbook was black and white instead of in color that she had other people to accept his diploma-not her.