Maintenance of Inefficiency

In November 2010, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan presciently observed that, in coming years, educators would “face the challenge of doing more with less,” but warned against discouragement: “Enormous opportunities for improving the productivity of our education system lie ahead if we are smart, innovative, and courageous in rethinking the status quo.” The budget challenges Mr. Duncan foresaw are now reality: States and districts face tough decisions about education spending as revenue declines and federal stimulus spending dries up. But officials who have attempted to do more with less have often found themselves stymied in one key area by the intransigence of the very agency that Mr. Duncan leads.

The roadblock? A federal “maintenance of effort” (MOE) requirement in the Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA, the federal special-education law) that 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 slice of school budgets.

For one brief shining moment, Secretary Duncan appeared ready to end the MOE silliness. Then he caved to the powerful special-education lobby, which refused to accept anything other than expenditures escalating into perpetuity.

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.

Enter Levenson, former superintendent of the Arlington (MA) Public Schools. In his new study, Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education, he and his team identified school districts that get similar (or superior) results for special-education students as their peer districts, yet do so at significantly lower cost. They are doing right by kids and right by the bottom line. Both at once. And their practices are eminently imitate-able.

Levenson & co. also developed a national database on special-ed spending—the largest and most detailed ever built. It contains information from almost 1,500 districts, representing 30 percent of U.S. schoolchildren. The database shows that special-education spending and staffing vary wildly—much more so than it does for regular education. Principally driving this variation are huge district-to-district differences in staffing levels.

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.

Levenson draws on his research to offer a few simple, but assuredly not simplistic, solutions. Make general education better, he says, so that fewer kids get directed into special education. Once youngsters are in special education, design interventions for them that take cost-effectiveness into account—a benefit both for the kids and for the taxpayer. Focus on recruiting better teachers, not more teachers (and aides, specialists, etc.)—for general and special education alike. And scrupulously manage their caseloads.

Districts and states should take these lessons to heart, but the simplest fix supported by Levenson’s findings must occur at the federal level: End maintenance-of-effort requirements that are both inefficient and ineffective. As special-education costs eat into general-education coffers—a trend that is almost certain to continue in the lean years ahead—we suspect that education leaders, policymakers, and taxpayers alike (maybe even the parents and teachers of children with disabilities), will feel impelled to make our perplexing and inefficient special-education system a little less so.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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