In a 20 December editorial entitled “The Special Education Bridge to Nowhere” published by Vermont Tiger, Curtis Hier published the accompanying editorial.
The recent study by the Joint Fiscal Office on our tax burden in Vermont reminds me of another JFO study done a few years ago. In 2001, the JFO was put in charge of studying special education costs. It enlisted a working group that included special educators, professional disability advocates, and the “Big Three” of the education lobby — including, of course, Joel Cook of the Vermont-NEA.
Given the makeup of the working group, it should not be a surprise that the study identified growing costs that were beyond anybody’s control, and it recommended that the problem be studied further. Herein lies the problem of special education cost containment. Those who potentially have the answers to the problem of spending are the stakeholders who benefit from the spending.
At Vermont Tiger (www.vermonttiger.com), we have some great ideas for identifying and tackling the real cost drivers of education spending in Vermont. And we have some great resources at our disposal. We are a nonprofit organization that promotes sound and sustainable economic growth in Vermont.
We’ve started to post regular investigative reports on our site that expose certain practices of the education community, and we are watching particularly for examples of ineffective spending. In special education, while there are dedicated professionals and certainly pockets of success throughout Vermont, there are plenty of examples to be found of inefficient spending and poor results. And looking at the results statewide, it appears that we’re building a virtual bridge to nowhere.
Special education spun out of control in the 1990s. Special education professional staff increased by 42 percent, while paraprofessional staff increased by an amazing 139 percent. Overall special education expenditures rose at a rate of 150 percent. We went from spending $51 million to spending $128 million on these programs.
Since Act 117 was passed in 2000, special education programs have slowed their growth rate a bit. They had to. They couldn’t possibly maintain the pace of the 1990s. Still, the growth is formidable. Now we spend well over $200 million on these programs. And yet, despite the spending levels, we are seeing abysmally low and essentially flat achievement scores among special needs students.
Part of the problem has been that the cost drivers have been overstated and taken advantage of by the special education community. For instance, there is a perception that litigation is common and that parents always win. But in the last three years, 13 due process cases were disposed of by hearing officers. Six decisions clearly found for the school district. Five found for the parents. And two included partial findings. Three of the 13 cases ended up in court. That’s not bad for 350 local education agencies over a three-year period.
Another cost driver, seemingly beyond our control, would be the increasing number of low incidence disabilities, such as autism, that are being diagnosed in recent years. These disabilities are cost-intensive. But not every school sees a net increase in these cases every year. Some occasionally see a net decrease. However, schools do not tend to take advantage of the savings opportunities that occur when that happens. While there are certainly fixed costs involved in serving children with severe disabilities, there are some variable costs as well. Contrary to popular belief, special education enrollment has not been trending upward, especially as general student enrollments are going down. Schools that see lower special education enrollments should realize some savings. No rational business would ever lower production and want to keep paying the same amount of money on variable costs.
Clearly there are opportunities for savings in staffing levels. Professor Michael Giangreco has been doing some great work on special education staffing patterns at the University of Vermont. Although he insists that his ideas are “cost-neutral” proposals, his findings could potentially offer ways to reduce significantly our cost burdens. Our current staffing patterns are arguably failing to meet the “least restrictive environment” test of special education law. We can do a better job meeting that test while actually reducing staffing costs. Vermont Tiger will be shedding more light on this subject, as we attempt to build a less expensive bridge to somewhere.
Recently our organization hosted a symposium that explored the question of whether Vermont is to become an entrepreneurial state or a land of entitlements. Special education is an entitlement that is adding to public sector job growth in Vermont. The overall trend of public sector jobs replacing private sector jobs is a disturbing phenomenon in Vermont. It needs to be addressed. And we at Vermont Tiger have been and will continue to be addressing it.
If I understand Mr. Hier, he’s suggesting that all the “cost drivers” that we often hear cited by special education fiscal critics—e.g., increasing identifications, court cases, etc.—are not what keeps special education costs “out of control” in Vermont. He seems to suggest instead that its staffing costs that are not adjusted downwards when special education enrollment drops and, also, that better (more?) implementation of the LRE criterion would bring costs down.
Is that it? Not much of an argument. How do you even know costs are high if you don’t have the slightest idea what something—in this case, special education—costs. I don’t think the State of Vermont—or any other state for that matter—has any idea what general education costs. This statement by Mr. Hier
And yet, despite the spending levels, we are seeing abysmally low and essentially flat achievement scores among special needs students.
is so naive or disingenuous, it’s hard to know where to begin responding. What kind of gains does Mr. Hier think Vermont is paying for… exactly? The fact is that he doesn’t know and neither does Vermont. If he wants to say that he and Vermont are spending more than they’d like, more than the perceived value of special education, why doesn’t he just say so?
In theory (and in policy), the cost of special education is intended to be variable because it’s based on the aggregate value of all individual educational plans which, in principle, are individually calculated.
Not knowing exactly how much it costs to get to any yearly acheivement target, a rational system would invest steadily in professional development since the aggregate costs of special education cannot trend downwards if capacity stays constant. So one could just as reasonably argue that Vermont hasn’t spent enough on professional development. But, then, we still wouldn’t have any way of knowing if the current expenditures map well against the actual need or not since no one attempts to measure what it really would cost to reach actual IEP goals.
I do not know about Vermont’s special education service structure, but I’m willing to bet that the 139% increase in paraprofessional costs has paralleled increased inclusion (what Mr. Hier seems to be arguing will reduce costs).
The fact is that states have not figured out how you can effectively divide a single special education teacher by the number of classrooms where students with disabilities are placed. Therefore, paraprofessional costs—typically undertrained paraprofessionals—as a percentage of special education has gone up (everywhere).
If I’m right, some of the maintenance, if not increase, in costs might be associated with inclusion as it is practiced in Vermont. This would be a disappointment for policymakers who supported an expansion of inclusion in 1990, thinking that it would bring special education costs down.
We could, of course, withdraw paraprofessionals and expect regular classroom teachers to carry the full responsibility, but alas that would take some significant and ongoing investment in professional development, effectively moving the cost from paraprofessional support to professional development. And, it isn’t clear to me that classroom teachers would readily accept that full responsibility.
That one should expect special education to be expensive is not news at this point. What would be news would be if anyone, anywhere had the least idea what it should cost to assure meaningful learning outcomes for students with IEPs.
But, for that matter, no one knows what it really costs, say, to teach non-disabled children to read. Fact is, we have no idea what outcomes-based education really costs.
I don’t think that States really want to know because it’s likely to be many times what we spend now.
Instead, as seen in NCLB, the policy strategy is to set outcome expectations with relatively fixed revenue (with some guessed at supplement from federal contributions). If you can’t adjust revenues to match needs, then the only movable part left is teaching effectiveness and effort which, as I noted above, come at a cost, too.
It is on this same issue, by the way, that RTI will fail. As a rational strategy for allocating scarce instructional resources, RTI is sensible. Devote these resources to students who really need more intensive and extensive instruction based on progress monitoring. However, the entire strategy falls apart if the primary level of instruction—what the classroom teacher provides—is not, at least, very good. If it isn’t, then scarce resources will be allocated to compensate for not-so-good teaching rather than innate limitations of students.
The only way out of this is, again, significant investment in professional development, the same place we end up in pursuing special education’s real costs. It shouldn’t surprise us. Special education, all along, has been a system for responding to the perceived unresponsiveness of students under conditions of typical instrution (beginning way back when Elizabeth Farrell taught at P. S. 1 in NYC). Although the technical skills of teachers in 1901 may have been somewhat limited, the principle remains unchanged that there will always be relatively “unresponsive” learners if baseline instruction occurs in large groups of students who are variable in their ability to respond to whatever the prevailing method or technology of instruction might be.
So, I fear that Mr. Hier’s and Vermont’s problem of special education costs is technically unsolvable in the foreseeable future
It is, of course, politically solvable.
Mr. Hier or others could convince voters to spend less to get more. In the world of politics we spend according to what we collectively—by vote—value, even when the benefits derived from that spending are muddy (as in proscecuting wars, for example).
Any proposal to cut spending will be met with sizable resistance from parents, special educators, and other advocates. Of course, these folks (us) do not have any better idea what the real spending number ought to be. We merely suspect (rightly, I believe) that it should be higher, certainly not lower. But, if Mr. Hier or others have or gain more votes, they win. In one sense, a reauthorized NCLB that reduces the requirement for making progress for students with disabilities, accomplishes something of the same end. That is, if schools do not have to demonstrate progress by students with disabilities, such a policy invites schools to make less, not more, effort for these students regardless of their inclusion status.
Laws change; reality doesn’t. It won’t change a thing in the schools, of course. School folks will still be pinned between the requirements of effort mandated in IDEA (unless IT is changed as well) and whatever cost-cutting policies are adopted in Vermont or elsewhere. And children with disabilities will still be at very high risk for learning failure.
If you don’t live in Vermont, don’t worry. There’s some version of “Vermont” everywhere these days. There can be no rest for advocates.
University of California Santa Barbara
To read Mr. Hier’s complete editorial in its original form, follow this link.