Considering Special Education Adequacy in California
The ways in which the needs of special populations—students in poverty, English learners, and particularly special education students—have been addressed in studies measuring educational adequacy vary widely. This paper analyzes how these populations have been treated across various adequacy studies, with its major focus on special education adequacy.
Special education is an increasingly important component of the overall adequacy question. Its broader consideration began with the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975—since renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—which guarantees all eligible students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Prior to the passage of this legislation, U.S. schools served only one in five children with disabilities and several state laws excluded students with certain disabilities (including deafness, blindness, emotional disturbance, or mental retardation) from public schools. Today, more than 12 percent of all elementary and secondary public education students have been identified for special education. In California, school-aged students (ages 6 – 21) receiving special education services make up 9.5 percent of public school enrollment. In addition, special education constitutes a considerable portion of overall K-12 public education spending. According to one national estimate, special education constituted about 13.9 percent of total K-12 spending in 1999-2000, the most recent year for which an estimate is available. The percentage of students in special education and the total expenditure on these students as a percentage of overall K-12 spending has been steadily increasing on a consistent basis over the past 30 years across the nation.
This study focuses on two primary research questions:
- What analytical techniques exist for estimating the cost of an adequate education for special education students?
- How might these techniques be applied to estimate the cost of an adequate education for special education students in California, and how do these cost estimates compare to what is currently spent on special education students?
In response to the first question, we conducted an extensive review of how each of the four primary approaches to measuring educational adequacy—professional judgment, evidence-based, successful schools, and cost function approaches—have included special education and other special needs populations, and present results for these students under each approach. We found that the evidence-based and successful schools approaches largely defer on the question of defining adequate special education provision. For example, in the evidence-based studies, researchers have mostly recommended that states retain their state funding approach for special education, seemingly irrespective of the system in place. The successful schools approach lacks strong methods for identifying marginal costs for special education. While special education students are incorporated into the econometric methods used in cost function studies, this approach may not be well-suited to account for variations in the composition of students with disabilities. Many of the professional judgment studies reviewed for this paper generated distinct add-on costs for special needs populations, which are reviewed in this paper.
As a supplement to these more traditional perspectives to measuring adequacy, we propose that the actual levels of resource provision in special education offer an important benchmark by which to consider adequate provision. The federal IDEA requires that an individualized education program (IEP) be created for every student eligible to receive special education services. The IEP is a legal contract in which the unique needs of the student must be fully examined by a multi-disciplinary team of appropriate professionals as a basis for establishing annual educational goals and for specifying the location, frequency, duration, and intensity of services necessary to make progress toward them. In a sense, each of these teams represents mini professional judgment panels. Consequently, we believe that actual special education expenditures come much closer to reflecting the ‘cost’ of adequacy than comparable measures of expenditure for non-special education students.
This paper presents estimates of special education provision in California using four approaches, all of which are largely based on actual provision. One approach draws on detailed statewide accounting data to estimate current levels of special education spending, while another applies special education resource allocation patterns estimated from a study previously conducted for the state. The two remaining estimates use special education spending ratios from the national Special Education Expenditure Project to approximate special education provision that might be expected if districts in California provided special education services similar to those found on average across the nation. These ratios are applied against two estimates of spending for a general education student. The first one is based on current spending in the state, and the second is based on adequate spending. These four estimates of adequate special education spending per student, which range from $7,777 to $11,600 per special education student, provide alternative bases for considering adequate special education provision in California.
The charge for this paper was to focus on special education adequacy. Within this context, we have attempted to consider and define this concept on its own, with a major product of these analyses being stand alone estimates of the cost of special education adequacy. Of the four standard adequacy methodologies, only the professional judgment and econometric approaches appear at least theoretically capable of producing comparable stand alone estimates of special education adequacy. Although there are questions as to whether stand-alone special education adequacy estimates can be derived from these types of approaches, to the extent this can be done such estimates would have an important advantage in that the needs of special education students can only be fully considered in relation to the general education services they receive. It is only in this holistic sense that special education adequacy can be fully considered.
As discussed, service levels that emanate from IEPs use professional judgment to delineate the services needed to produce specified outcomes. In this sense, they provide a strong basis for considering adequacy. At the same time, they are deficient in regard to the full consideration of adequacy because they build on a base of general education services that may be inadequate. If this is true, they likely overstate what is needed for special education. At the same time, the current mix of general and special education services in California arguably understate what is needed in that the outcome goals set for special education students by state and federal accountability provisions are generally not being met.
In addition to the four special education adequacy estimates in this paper, it may be possible to produce additional estimates through the professional judgment and econometric studies included in this adequacy project. They would have the advantage over those presented in this paper of estimating the cost of special education adequacy within the context of adequate general education. If comparable special education adequacy numbers could be derived from these analyses, it would be interesting to compare them to the results presented in this paper.