Report targets special needs
Limits urged on enrollment
January 29, 2003
By Shari Rudavsky
Enrollment of students in special education nationwide has increased by nearly a quarter in the past decade in the face of funding that offers incentives to identify students in need of such services, according to a recent study by the Manhattan Institute.
''Bounty'' funding systems that pay per student placed in special education bear much of the responsibility for the rise in enrollment, the report argues. Nearly 12.5 of all students were classified as needing special education in the 2000-2001 school year.
In the 33 bounty states, special-education enrollments grew much faster than in those with set or lump-sum funding over the past decade, the report found. One of the 16 lump-sum states, Massachusetts, had enrollment decline from 16.4 percent to 15.5 percent in that period, the report found.
But a higher percentage of those enrolled in Massachusetts special education have more severe problems, as more children are born with disabilities or conditions such as autism.
Early intervention programs, where enrollments have tripled, reflect the trend. There the number of students classified as moderate to severe has nearly quadrupled in a decade, going from 5,518 to 22,661, said Sheldon Berman, chair of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents' task force on special education.
With these higher-needs students requiring more intensive services, Massachusetts school districts now spend 20.2 percent of their budgets on special education, up from 17.2 percent in 1990 - not including funds for health services.
With special education expenses continuing to soar, attention is turning to how best to meet the needs. In 2001, 21.4 percent of the state's education spending went to special education, or $1.8 billion out of an $8.4 billion budget, according to Department of Education figures.
Cutting special-education funding as the report recommends would only force school districts to spend money currently allocated for regular education to help special-needs students, said Berman, superintendent of the Hudson public schools.
''The argument around finances is a fallacious one. You may want to create incentives or find lower-cost ways of addressing needs but to create a lump-sum system means only that regular education will be compromised,'' he said. ''Their study is a simplistic look at a very complex issue.''
The Manhattan study argues that bounty systems encourage overdiagnosing children and concludes that all states should adopt a lump-sum model or submit to spot checks to ensure all students in special-education programs belong there.
''Right now it's a conflict-of-interest: The same organization that assigns the diagnosis is the same organization that receives the benefit,'' said study author Jay Greene. ''We ought to think about how we distribute funds in a way that does not provide incentives to place students incorrectly in special education.''
But local superintendents who have studied the situation in Massachusetts scoff at the idea of curbing special-education funding. They attribute the rise in special-education enrollments not to funding incentives but an increase in the number of needy children.
''I don't know too many superintendents that are trying to put youngsters into special education to garner more money,'' said Perry Davis, superintendent of the Dover-Sherborn Schools. ''This report concerns me because it kind of lays blame, as if public schools are manipulating the system and creating more children that have disabilities.''
Other specialists criticized the report for concentrating on funding rather than on exploring how well such programs work, not just for the students placed in them but for those in regular education classes. ''The unfortunate thing about special education is that often times the focus seems to be on cost and on the stigma of being classified rather than the effectiveness of the program,'' said Steven Rivkin, associate professor of economics at Amherst College.
Other researchers, however, agreed with the Manhattan Institute report's findings. In her study of Texas school districts, a similar pattern emerged, said Julie Cullen, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Michigan.
That does not lead Cullen to conclude that students necessarily wound up inappropriately classified as needing special education.
''If you thought there were barriers to students gaining access to special education, you would say it's a great thing. If you thought students were misclassified, you would think it's a bad thing,'' she said.
Greene, however, suspects that behind these statistics are a number of students placed in special education who should not be there. He notes ''learning disability,'' the most amorphous of the 13 federally recognized categories of special education, accounts for the largest bulk of the increase.
''It's hard to imagine more than one in 10 of students are disabled,'' he said. ''We don't want to wrongly label students as disabled just to get them the help they need.''
©2003 Boston Globe