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The Politics of Special Education Placement

If we agree philosophically with the idea of serving children in the least restrictive environment possible, then it follows that we should work very hard not to place children who don’t belong in special education into special education programs. The trouble, of course, is that despite seemingly objective definitions and classification rubrics, the number of students placed in special education continues to be a highly subjective and even political decision.

The Numbers

It starts with even the most basic question: how many children should be placed in special education? Nationally, using National Center for Education Statistics data from 2008, 13.4% of students between the ages of 3 and 21 are served in special education programs. One quick way to measure special education overplacement in a medium-sized or large school district would be to say that if they have numbers that are significantly above the national average that they are placing too many students in special education. It is also easy to blame schools and districts that lie outside the norm as being too quick to place students in special education.

Behind the Numbers

Of course things are never quite that easy. Many people do not understand the role that states play in setting the context for special education placement.  When you look across states, some states place nearly twice as many students (~20%) in special education as other states (~10%). The difference isn’t random either. States which place constitutional limits on taxes or which are fiscally conservative in their policies are far more likely to have fewer special education students than states with a strong history of funding social policies.

When states set up funding systems that reward districts with additional resources every time they place another student in special education, not surprisingly, it appears to encourage more special education students. Dollar-starved states, such as California, place a cap on the percentage of special education students they are willing to provide funds for. It should come as no surprise that student placements stop as soon as the state stops providing additional money for more special education placements.

In some localities, we have found that special education placements follow racial patterns. In one Midwestern district, special education placements spiked among adolescent African American males. A large percentage of these teens were placed in special education having been referred by teachers and diagnosed as having emotionally disturbed behavior.

While special education dollars (about $50 billion nationally) can do good things for students where placements are appropriate and service models are well thought out, state legislatures and departments of education need to understand that allowing districts to place more and more students into special education programs does not actually improve education outcomes, not even for the students placed therein.  Not only is the outlook for students coming out of special education particularly bleak, over-placement saps scarce dollars that might be used for more cost-effective and less regulated ways of serving students who are slightly behind their peers.

What might be done?

Nationally: The federal government could exercise leadership here by defining placements over a number, 11-12% for example, as not consistent with placing students in the least restrictive environment possible. While very small districts may need to be considered, at the state level there is no reason to expect that the medical incidence of disability varies significantly across states.*

States: States, too, should establish a funding cap, a level of placement in special education above which they refuse to provide more state dollars for special education placements. Districts that wish to place more students in special education can do so but will need to raise local funds to support these students. As in California, the state can establish a reserve for small districts or for those rare cases where it is clear that the percentage of students who need special services is higher than in other localities. In addition, states need to provide funding for support services for struggling students who do not meet requirements for placement in special education programs.

Districts and schools: Local districts and schools should take care to establish oversight to reduce unnecessary placements in special education and to ensure that certain subsets of populations are not being placed into special education disproportionately.

To some, it may feel strange to talk about improving educational opportunities for struggling students by keeping them out of a program that provides additional academic supports. The reality is that we do students no favors by placing them needlessly into special education. Research suggests that students benefit from high expectations and a rigorous curriculum. Students placed in special education, by contrast, underperform their peers even when we compare them to students who began at a similar place but were not given special education services. The dollars saved by not overenrolling students in special education can be used to provide services that are less rigidly regulated.

* Statement by the author: 

An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly implied that all students with disabilities are diagnosed with mental retardation, which is also an inappropriate term. As the father of  two children with special needs, and the spouse of a special education teacher, I am very aware of the sensitive nature of  language surrounding ability and sincerely do not wish to imply disrespect to any student or family. I have updated the language in this piece to reflect my true intention. I also hope it's clear from the piece that I do not advocate denying or delaying special education services to those who need them. – Stephen Frank

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