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America’s Special Education Mess

The system has never been grounded in fiscal reality.

The Trump administration’s plans to expand scholarship tax credits—a less subsidized version of vouchers—could very well end up being a boon to individual students in great need across the country. Such programs help individual students by allowing them to escape from failing public schools. But they do nothing to fix failing public schools.

An education reform worthy of the name should involve actually reforming public schools. And it should begin with the sprawling special education bureaucracy, which epitomizes everything that’s wrong with those schools.  

My introduction to special education came as a local news reporter in New Hampshire. I quickly learned that the communities I covered had not one, but two public education systems. One was the regular public education system most people know about. The other was special education, which had its own set of rules and administrative apparatus, and, to varying degrees, separate buses, classes, and schools.

Special education was born in 1975 with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Most of the features of the current system were put in place in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, in 1990. (The law was most recently reauthorized in 2004.)

The original intention was certainly noble: to ensure that students with disabilities were not marginalized and had an opportunity at a public education like everyone else.

But, from the beginning, the system has never been grounded in fiscal reality.

In theory, the federal government is supposed to shoulder 40 percent of the costs. In practice, annual funding hasn’t even reached half that. In 2015, federal contributions amounted to just 16 percent of the total cost nationwide, according to a NEA report. The result has been catastrophic for state and local public education funding: the shortfall, according to the NEA, “has wreaked havoc on state and local budgets and at times left districts scrambling to meet student needs.”

In 2003, the parents of Luke Perkins, an autistic elementary school student in Berthoud, Colorado, enrolled him in a Boston boarding school for special needs students. But his $135,000 annual tuition bill was sent back to his school district based on the reasoning that it was responsible for the cost under federal law.

Not surprisingly, the district balked and challenged the claim in court, ultimately prevailing in a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2009. But it was something of a Pyrrhic victory: the district’s initial legal fees alone were $191,000, more than the annual tuition cost. (Notably, a recent Supreme Court decision went against another Colorado school district on the question of special education tuition.)

Such lawsuits are almost an inevitable outcome of the special education system, which is adversarial by design. Under IDEA, the 1990 federal law, every student who is in the system must have an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. The IEP is a highly detailed document that is updated at least annually and hashed out in meetings between parents and educators. Far removed from your friendly parent-teacher conferences, these meetings take on an air of legal proceedings, as one frustrated mother, Tracy Thompson, explains in The Atlantic:

If things have not been going well, parents may bring lawyers to the meeting, which means attorneys for the school system are, too. The whole thing is a cross between a legal deposition and a committee meeting, and it follows a rough script: Everybody introduces themselves for the record, teachers give a progress update, and then everyone gets down to the question of what to do next. …

The end result is “an incredibly detailed, jargon-filled document that very few people actually study.” A teacher may have 15 to 20 such IEPs, each about 30 pages or so. Inevitably, the bureaucracy overwhelms them. “Even the best-intentioned and most heroic general-education teachers are hard pressed to implement even some of the basic provisions—a printout of class notes,” Thompson writes. (In the words of one teacher: “I spent more time writing IEPs and having IEP meetings than I did meeting with students and actually supporting them.”)

Thompson ended up sending her daughter to a private program and ended up footing the bill herself. Others, like the parents of Colorado’s Luke Perkins, send the bill to the school district. In the 2003-2004 school year there were 88,156 private education placements around the country. In Colorado alone, there were 1,314. As a share of the whole population of special education students, these private placements constitute just 1.48 percent, according to Education Next, which consequently calls it a ‘myth’ that these students are siphoning resources away from public schools.  

But the rarity of these cases is beside the point. Day programs can run about $51,000 a year; residential programs average at $105,000. At those rates, even a small number of students can blow a hole in a school district’s budget. Districts would rather pay dearly now rather than risk even higher costs down the road. In 2014, a southern California community spent nearly $1 million in a legal squabble over one student’s $6,100 tuition bill—all to avoid setting a precedent. In 2000, districts across the country racked up $146 million in legal bills battling parents in court over private tuition bills, according to Time.

Moreover, these cases are illustrative of a broader truth: even the in-house cost of special education is far higher than it is for other students. These students number in the millions: overall, about 13 percent of approximately 50 million public school students have disabilities, according to the latest estimate.

Unfortunately, reliable data on the total cost of special education—federal, state, and local together—does not appear to be available. This fact alone is a red flag: the system is either so hopelessly convoluted that tracking down where the money goes is impossible, or, perhaps even worse, regulators are either uninterested or too afraid to find out. Some of the partial figures: state funding was $19 billion in fiscal 2014 according to the U.S. Census, but 13 states did not provide data. Federal funding that year was $11.5 billion, a fraction of what it has promised.

Per pupil data, however, is available. New York public schools, for example, spent $29,111 per special education student—nearly double the $11,256 per pupil cost in regular education in the 2012-2013 school year. California likewise saw a disparity of $22,300 per student in special education versus $9,600 for others. The pattern holds true for the national estimate of per pupil spending, which is $12,474 in special education and $6,556 in regular. This estimate, despite being over a decade old, is the most recent available.

Such disproportionate costs crowd out funding for other students. As Time notes, “Special-ed costs threaten to eat into budgets for school endeavors that are not federally mandated, like athletics or the gifted-and-talented program.” TAC executive editor Pratik Chougule recently warned that this country has “turned against smart kids.” Little wonder, given the enormous amount of funding, time, attention, and other institutional resources that go to special education.

Perhaps this could all be justified if special education students were actually benefitting. But the majority of them aren’t. Fourth graders in special ed trailed their peers on standardized math tests by 11 to 40 percentage points the 2014-2015 school year. In reading, the lag ranged from 16 percent to 47 percentage points, according to the National Center on Education Outcomes. While it might be expected that students in special ed might struggle more, the whole point of the system is to enable all but those with the most severe disabilities to attain the same achievement levels as everyone else.

There is also the question of over-diagnosis. “Today almost one in seven students is classified as having a disability. That’s 63 percent more than when federal programs for special education began in 1976. Do we really believe that our children’s medical well-being has deteriorated so severely over the last three decades?” writes education reform advocate Jay Greene.

In the case of autism, for example, 13 percent of early diagnoses are later reversed. But it’s not just autism: one survey of scholarly literature reported that a “substantial number of children and adolescents” with ADHD and other disorders “lost their former practitioner-generated diagnoses after reevaluation.” One of the studies cited found that 28.3 percent of children and teens believed to have bipolar disorder later had their diagnoses changed. Another estimated that nearly 1.1 million children were incorrectly diagnosed with ADHD.

Explanations for over-diagnosis abound. A “growing awareness” of mental illness could be a factor. But this alone cannot account for the trend. In the context of public schools, one theory holds that generating a higher number of special education students garners an increase in funding. Although federal funding has fallen short, state funding is also available. It won’t help regular education students, but at least it will keep the special education bureaucracy churning. There also could be a tendency to view ordinary misbehavior through a mental health lens.

One telling statistic is the well-documented over-representation of minority students. For example, African-American kids are 1.4 times more likely than white kids to end up in a special needs class. Or, as one special education teacher puts it: “I was only three days into my job when I began to ask myself, ‘How is it possible that only poor black males have learning disabilities?’ This is to say, it was in this role that I began to question the way our school defines disability.” One report faults hidden racial biases that lead educators to interpret “minor behavioral problems, different speech patterns, or slower learning performance as disabilities.”

Surely some students must be helped by special education. The intention behind it is commendable. Yet, by almost any measure—student performance, fiscal accountability, parent satisfaction, racial demographics—it is a deeply flawed system. There are no any easy or obvious answers, but if we can figure out how to fix special education, there is hope for the rest of public education.

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, R.I. Email him at bealenews@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @bealenews



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