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