IDEA Money Watch responds to “Something Has Got to Change”

June 14, 2011

On Tuesday the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released “Something Has Got to Change: Rethinking Special Education,” a paper that examines special education spending and seeks to offer  practical solutions to “tame out-of-control special education spending while serving special-needs students better.”  AEI also provided a teleconference during which the paper’s author, Nathan Levenson, presented a brief overview and responded to questions.

There’s stuff to like in Levenson’s paper. Mainly, we think special education spending–along with the policies that control it–needs and deserves close examination and dialogue to spur change. Special education can’t continue as the “third rail” of education. This deeply entrenched “hands-off” policy serves neither students nor taxpayers. Meanwhile, we want to ensure that facts presented in such discussions are correct. So here’s a quick review of Levenson’s points that either hit or miss the mark…

LEVENSON: “As a nation, special education spending has risen from 4 percent to 21 percent of total school spending from 1970 to 2005.”

IDEA Money Watch: It’s rather unfair to look at special education spending pre/post the enactment of the federal special education law, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The driving purpose of the law was to end the exclusion of students with disabilities from public education. A congressional investigation in 1972, following two landmark court cases (PARC v. Commonwealth of PA and Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia) found that of the more than 8 million children with disabilities requiring special education, only 3.9 million were receiving an appropriate education, 1.75 million were receiving no educational serves at all, and 2.5 million were receiving an inappropriate education. A contrast between either the number of students served by special education or the amount of money spent to serve them that reaches back to before enactment of federal legislation is both useless and misleading.

We had to poke around to find the source of the claim that special education accounted for 21 percent of total school spending in 2005. Levenson’s paper references an Education Week blog about a conference on Improving Productivity in Public Education and, specifically, a presentation by Karen Hawley Miles of Education Resource Strategies – none of which tells us the source of the information.

We do know that the U.S. Dept. of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) does not collect data on special education spending per se. Reports issued by NCES on revenues and expenditures for public elementary and secondary education do not break out expenditures for general and special education.

That leaves us reliant on surveys and special studies. One such survey from the Economic Policy Institute, Where Has the Money Been Going (October 2010), relies on data from nine school districts. The EPI report found that the average annual real growth in per-pupil spending from 1996-2005 was 4.5% for special education vs. 2.4% for regular education (Table 10). During that same period, 53% of net new money was spent on academic classroom programs while 41% was spent on special education (Table 11). In 2005, 21% of district spending in the nine districts, on average, went to special education (Table 16). This appears to be the source for the claim in Levenson’s paper. But this is not a national figure, only an average of data from nine districts, ranging from 15% to 23%.

Another source of information on special education expenditures comes from the Special Education Expenditure Project (SEEP).  Funded by the U.S. Dept. of Education, SEEP reports are based on analyses of extensive data for the 1999-2000 school year. The SEEP report, “What are we spending on special education services in the U.S.?“, found that total regular and special education expenditure for educating students with disabilities represents over 21 percent of the 1999-2000 spending on all elementary and secondary educational services in the U.S. The total expenditure to educate the average student with disabilities was an estimated 1.90 times that expended to educate the typical regular education student with no special needs (down from 1985, when it was estimated by Moore et al. (1988) to be 2.28.)

LEVENSON: “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.”

IDEA Money Watch: Actually, the number of students ages 6-21 eligible for special education services has declined every year since 2004 – down 4% between 2004 and 2009, according to data collected by the U.S. Dept. of Education. As our chart here indicates, some categories, like specific learning disabilities, which accounts for almost half of all special education students, has declined by 12.4% since 2004.  This is a pretty simple fact to get right. IDEA requires an annual count of students receiving special education; it’s available at

Equally wrong is Levenson’s characterization of “health impairments (OHI), autism, and developmental delay as “severe disabilities.” The category of OHI is made up largely of students with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), particularly since a change to federal regulations in 1999 made ADHD expressly part of the OHI category. Autism – a disability showing explosive growth nationwide – is not necessarily “severe” in all students found eligible in this category. Developmental Delay – added in 1997 – is an optional category available to states only for children through age 9. It allows young children to be served under IDEA without being assigned a specific disability designation. Fifteen states don’t use the Developmental Delay category at all (AR, CA, CO, CT, FL, IN, IA, MT, NJ, NY, OH, OR, SD, TX, and WV). So, the growth in this category is technically not growth at all, but rather a shift in how schools designate children ages 6-9 in some states. Simply put, if this category didn’t exist, students would be assigned to one of the other IDEA disability categories (as they are in those 15 states not using the category).

LEVENSON: “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.”

IDEA Money Watch: Let’s not equate spending with effort. As Levenson correctly points out, students with special needs have fared poorly academically even in the best of financial times. Parents often wonder what all that money is providing their student. Sometimes we even speculate that special education costs are overstated by districts because they can use the “federal mandate” argument to defend any amount of spending.

However, by any large-scale measure, students with disabilities are performing poorly despite the enormous amount of funds that schools claim to be spending. For example, on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) only 38% of students with disabilities were at or above the ‘basic’ level (defined as partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at a given grade) in 8th grade reading compared to 79% of students without disabilities (lots more about NAEP and students with disabilities).

Another look at academic performance of students with disabilities is provided by the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2. This large-scale study found that significant numbers of students in all disability categories function far below grade level in reading and math (details here), raising serious questions about how these students can master high school course requirements to earn a regular diploma. The NLTS2 also found that the correlation between grades and academic functioning is nearly zero – indicating that students and parents are being seriously mislead with regard to real academic achievement.

Yet we also know that despite the money supposedly being spent, many students with disabilities aren’t receiving the support and specialized instruction that is needed to ensure their success. This is particularly true in the area of assistive technology (AT). Anecdotal evidence suggests that only 3-5% of students with disabilities have assistive technology written on the IEP despite the IDEA requirement that the need for AT be considered as part of the development of every student’s IEP. This problem is so acute that the U.S. Dept. of Education put funding of AT at the top of its list of suggested ways that district might spend the extra IDEA funds provided by the Recovery Act.

Levenson asserts that ”to raise the achievement of students with special needs, only three things matter—reading, reading, and reading” to which we respond – yes, yes, yes. Reading failure is the reason many students land in special education. Sadly, once there, many remain serious underachievers in this critical skill despite the “specially designed instruction” they are entitled to receive (evidenced by the NLTS2 finding mentioned above).

As Levenson points out, the key elements of reading instruction, as identified by the National Reading Panel, are rarely followed. Worse yet, a 2006 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that only 11 out of 72 education schools (15 percent) surveyed were found to actually teach all the components of the science of reading. Bottom line: the majority of teachers aren’t being taught the essential components of reading discovered through millions of dollars in federal research. Yet, as Dr. Louisa Moats pointed out in a 1999 report for the American Federation of Teachers, the difficulty of teaching reading has been underestimated: it is, in fact, rocket science!

LEVENSON: By vesting more responsibility for special needs kids in the hands of general educators, especially content expert educators, schools can save funds while putting kids in front of the best trained teachers.”

IDEA Money Watch: Here again we say yes, yes, yes. We also note that in many ways Skrtic was right when he posited (in 1991) that “the very existence of special education as a field has reduced the motivation of regular education teachers to be innovative, because special education removes from general education the children who might create the need for change.”

Worse yet (and this is a BIGGIE for us!), the academic achievement of students with disabilities plays no role in the monitoring and compliance activities of the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). To our dismay, we found that the “performance” indicators of the State Performance Plans are not part of the annual determination of a state’s implementation of IDEA, and, in turn, the states don’t consider the performance of students with disabilities in determining the rating of its local school districts. We’ve challenged the department’s legal authority in this area and consider it a significant barrier to raising the academic achievement of students with disabilities. OSEP’s current approach to monitoring ensures a complete focus on paper compliance and ignores academic achievement.

Still, improving teacher effectiveness was also a top recommendation for use of IDEA Recovery Act funds. In its guidance, U.S. ED states “Given that most students with disabilities are in the regular classroom and are taught by general education teachers most of the day, recruiting highly qualified general education teachers and providing ongoing professional development for general classroom teachers to ensure they have the knowledge and skills to teach these students effectively, as well as equipping special education teachers with core academic content knowledge, is essential.” The extent to which IDEA Recovery Act funds have been used to this end is hard to determine.

We remind Levenson that the Highly Qualified Teacher provisions dealing with special educators are found in IDEA, not NCLB. In fact, IDEA requires that special education teachers who teach multiple subjects exclusively to children with disabilities demonstrate competence in all the academic subjects in which they teach. Whether this is happening in practice is another issue, we quickly admit.




While not mentioned in Levenson’s paper, the Recovery Act has pumped $11.3 billion into special education between 2009 and 2011. Intended to improve results for students with disabilities, Recovery Act funds are well on the way to being totally expended – as of June 10, 2011, more than $9 billion has been obligated.

Some districts have used Recovery Act funds to study the efficiencies of special education spending. Others have elected to simply hire additional staff that now must be cut as the Recovery Act funds run out.

Levenson’s descriptions of increased achievement in a few districts clearly show that leaders at the local level can change what’s being done without changes in federal laws. Sadly, few actually take on the challenge.

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