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National Review Online


Blaming Special Ed

May 23, 2002

By Jay P. Greene

Apologists for the status quo in public education have a problem — how can they explain the fact that education spending is soaring while student outcomes are stagnant or declining? Over the last four decades the average amount spent per public-school student has tripled in real dollars from $2,360 to $7,086. During the same time period test scores on the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress and high-school graduation rates have been basically flat. If you are going to keep asking for more money, as the defenders of the education status quo are wont to do, you need something to explain these inconvenient facts.

Their shameful solution is to blame special education. Witness a recent article in the New York Times in which New York City School Chancellor, Harold Levy, blamed “rich disabled pupils” for draining millions of dollars from the “financially ailing” public-school system by obtaining public dollars to send their children to private schools. Never mind that New York City only pays for the private special education of about 1,000 of its more than 1 million students and that these special-education costs amount to only $13 million of its more than $10 billion dollar budget. Levy (and the New York Times which covered the claim without reporting any contrary view) would somehow like us to believe that a $13 million gnat is restraining the progress of a $10 billion dollar elephant.

The claim that special education is bankrupting public-school systems is a common theme in public discussion of the program. Dan Fuller of the National School Boards Association suggests that popular ire at rising school costs should be pinned on special education: “Around the country, we’re seeing more and more people concerned about property taxes, and it’s largely due to special education costs.” Usually such comments are attached to the demand that the federal government ought to cover those rising costs, but the suggestion that special education is to blame for increased spending and stalled learning gains always remains clear. Benny Gooden, superintendent of a public-school district in Arkansas, made the point in not-too-subtle a way when he said: “when you look at how much money [special education] takes, you find yourself saying, ’Boy, we could have lowered the teacher-student ratio, or we could have purchased another $1 million in technology.’”

Of course, if schools didn’t have to provide services to students who are learning English as a second language, low-income students, or other students who may be more expensive to educate, they would also have more money available to lower class size or buy technology. Why blame special education instead of other programs and populations that are also expensive and rising in costs? Special education is an easier scapegoat because its students are not necessarily low-income or members of minority groups (although many are poor and minority). The fact that some wealthy families benefit — the “rich disabled pupils” targeted by NYC Chancellor Levy — makes special education a politically correct scapegoat.

But the most pernicious thing about blaming special education is not that it is politically correct, it is that it’s not true. Special education can be held responsible neither for soaring education costs nor for stagnant student achievement. Yes, more money is spent on special education than on regular-education students. And yes, more students are being enrolled in special-education programs. But the shell game in education is that there has only been an increase in the students labeled as needing special education and not an actual increase in students with those learning difficulties.

There is nothing in the water that has created more children with learning problems. Better survival rates for babies born prematurely or mothers using drugs during pregnancy have also not led to a spike in students with learning problems, or, if they have, other improvements in public health, such as the reduction in lead-based paints and better child car seats, have countered any increase in children with learning problems.

The proof of this can be found by examining the trend in the number of special-education students with learning problems that are more objectively diagnosed, more severe, and more expensive to treat. If there has been a secular increase in the percentage of students with learning problems, then it should materialize in the more objective, severe, and expensive categories as well as in the more ambiguous, less severe, and less expensive ones. As it turns out, there has actually been a decline in the percentage of students labeled with these more serious learning problems. The percentage of students with these more serious learning problems, such as mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance, deafness, blindness, autism, or head-injury, has actually declined from 6.5 percent in 1976 to 5.8 percent in 1999. (See

Almost all of the growth in special education has occurred in the category called “specific learning disabilities,” which tend to be the disorders that are less objectively diagnosable, more subjective in their identification, less severe, and less expensive to treat, such as dyslexia or other relatively mild reading or math difficulties. The percentage of students labeled as having “specific learning disabilities” soared between 1976 and 1999 from 1.8 percent to 6.0 percent.

This enormous growth only in the more ambiguous and less expensive category suggests that there have been changes in the tendency to “label” students as having these learning problems and not the actual incidence of these problems in the student population. Schools now have stronger incentives to identify students as having these relatively mild and more ambiguously diagnosed disorders. Schools get extra funding for the students while the additional cost of providing services is not that high. Labeling students as having a specific learning disability may also have the benefits (from the school’s perspective) of exempting students from accountability testing and reducing everyone’s expectations about that child’s academic progress, thereby reducing expectations about the school’s performance. It is also possible that better awareness of milder learning disabilities has led to higher rates of identifying students with those difficulties.

Whether schools are currently over-diagnosing students with specific learning disabilities or were previously under-diagnosing them is not the issue here. The point is that schools have the same basic population with the same true level of learning problems that they used to have. The “growth” in special education has primarily been a growth in the labeling of students with learning problems.

If schools have the same basic population that they used to have, then the increase in special-education funding is simply an increase in resources for educating the same students. We shouldn’t let the shifting bureaucratic categories in which the money has been allocated distract us from the basic fact that spending has increased significantly and ought to be producing improvements in student achievement. Special education is not a black hole into which all spending disappears without any effect on students. The money schools get for special education is primarily used to hire more teachers, which reduces class size just as Superintendent Gooden wished. The attention these teachers pay to helping students learn how to read and do math should be manifesting itself in higher test scores and high graduation rates.

It’s not and therein lies the problem. Schools are getting more money and failing to improve their outcomes. Shifting students and spending into the special-education category doesn’t erase the fundamental problem of decreasing productivity in public education. The overwhelming majority of increased spending over the last few decades has gone toward hiring more teachers and paying them higher wages. Serious education reform should probably focus on ways to ensure that teacher compensation is attached to student learning, something that the education establishment fiercely resists. It is much easier to blame the slow kid.

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