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The High Price Students Pay for SPED Inefficiencies

At ERS we believe in the need to make every dollar count, especially during these tough economic times, (See Karen Miles’ “Transformation or decline? Using Tough Times to create higher-performing Schools” Kappan, October 11, 2011). And cost inefficiencies are especially problematic when addressing the needs of special education students. ERS addresses these issues in the Commentary section of the recent issue of Education Week. It's titled, “Improving Special Education Even in Tough Times.” The story below, from our work in a partner district, let's call it District E, further illustrates the difficulty of cost-effectively delivering high quality services to students with disabilities.

Last month, while ERS was providing support to districts in a southern state, we discovered that District E staffs one special education resource teacher for every 6.4 “resource students.” (A resource student is a student with a disability who is served in the general education setting but who also receives supplemental resource services for an average of about 20% of the school day). District E’s student-to-teacher ratio for resource students was 3-5 times lower than the ratio in other districts, although the ratios of District E’s other categories of students with disabilities were comparable. (see chart below)

While some districts deliberately invest in lower student-teacher ratios for pedagogical purposes, District E’s principals perceived an abundance of special education teachers doing very little. Moreover, according to district policies the principals had no authority to reassign these special education teachers, even for part of the day, to meet critical school needs.

Despite agreement by the CFO that the district employed too many special education resource teachers, the district was facing penalties for not spending enough on special education the previous year. During cost-cutting, they had inadvertently cut special education spending and because they had failed to maintain spending at the previous year’s level, as required by “maintenance of effort” regulations, they were facing millions of dollars in fines.

What do we recommend District E do? In this case, we are working with them to isolate the reasons for the extra teacher allocation to determine ways to right-size the investment over time. Meanwhile, it is possible to construct integrated service models that better leverage this existing investment. For instance, schools elsewhere sometimes organize so that resource teachers provide small-group instruction in literacy or math to integrated groups of general education and special education resource students directly in the general education classroom at predictable times and in collaboration with the general education instructor. As ERS’ commentary and other district work reveal, District E is not alone in its need to better utilize special education staff and resources for better outcomes for all students.

For more on ERS' work on resource efficiency in public school systems, please refer to the following tools and articles:

- Syracuse Report, “A Strategic Spending Review of Syracuse City School District.” This district diagnosed and served over 20 percent of its students in special education programs. They had focused many of their investments to protect the quantity of teachers and aides but had invested less effectively in improving the quality of instruction.

- Rochester Report, “Call to Arms.” This district invested in an inclusion model that turned out to be very costly despite being of unknown effectiveness.

School Budget Hold’em. This ERS tool, illustrates the cost tradeoffs faced by a typical district.

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