Something Has Got to Change: Rethinking Special Education

By Levenson, Nathan | AEI Paper & Studies, June 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

Something Has Got to Change: Rethinking Special Education


Levenson, Nathan, AEI Paper & Studies


"Something has got to change!" Perhaps the only point of agreement among superintendents, school boards, teachers, parents, and commissioners of education is that the status quo for meeting the needs of K-12 students with disabilities is not working very well. The current system is ineffective for students and burdensome to tax payers, and over the next five to ten years, the situation will become even more problematic.

Special education costs are rising rapidly, and the number of students with severe special needs such as autism or emotional and behavioral issues is rising even faster. The performance requirements under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are demanding higher levels of student achievement, but school budgets are shrinking. Though districts continue to lobby the state and federal government for more funds, they are unlikely to receive additional money given the current economic crisis and the harsh reality that greater spending in the past has not translated into increased learning. Districts must tackle the twin challenges of controlling special education costs and improving student achievement. In short, we are asking districts to do more with less.

During the best of financial times, students with special needs have fared poorly academically. Even high-achieving states like Massachusetts have struggled to help students with special needs reach grade-level mastery. While Massachusetts' education reform has raised overall student achievement to the highest in the nation, it has also produced the largest achievement gap between special education and general education students. (1) The rising tide didn't raise all boats.

The lackluster results for students with special needs are not from lack of effort; school districts are spending an increasing percentage of their total budget on special education. However, most districts cannot actually calculate their total financial commitment to special education. Reported figures often exclude the costs of facilities for in-district programs, legal expenses, fully-loaded transportation, subcontracted services, and the share of non-special education administration time devoted to special education meetings and problem resolution. In some districts, total special education costs consume 30 percent or more of total spending.

As a nation, special education spending has risen from 4 percent to 21 percent of total school spending from 1970 to 2005. (2) The pressure for increased spending is only going to intensify: the number of students with special needs is growing, and the number of students with significant special needs is increasing even faster. (3)

The Challenges Are Increasing

Special education students comprise two broad segments: a small number of students with very significant needs, and a large number of students with mild to moderate needs. Obviously, students with significant needs, also known as "severe disabilities," require more services (and thus greater per pupil expenditures).

The number of students with the more costly severe disabilities is growing fast. The number of students with three of the four most common severe disabilities--health impairments, autism, and developmental delay--are all increasing by double digits each year across the country. The number of students with mild disabilities is also increasing slightly each year. The number of students with moderate disabilities is growing more slowly, but it is still growing. These increases in need will put enormous pressure on school budgets.

As local and state funding declines because of the economic crisis and mounting deficits constrain federal support, it is unlikely that new money will be available to meet the rising needs. In fact, the Nelson Rockefeller Institute forecasts that state revenue will not return to pre-crisis levels for more than six years. (4) Their best-case forecast suggests substantial shortfalls through 2013, even with the sizable federal stimulus dollars taken into account. …

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