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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Special Education Reform and Autism

A new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute proposes reforms to special education:

  • District Cooperatives: Many districts—including charter schools, which often comprise their own mini-districts—do not have the requisite size and capacity to serve high-need students effectively and affordably. Multi-district co-ops allow for both economies-of-scale and better service-delivery for these children.
  • Student Funding Based on Multiple Weights: Special education funding systems based on average student needs may be easily administered, but they can also lead to inefficient and ineffective resource allocations. Weighted student funding is a tiered system of resource allocation that allows for a more rational and efficacious distribution of funds, enabling districts with more high-need pupils (or pupils who require more dollars to pay for their IEP-mandated services) to receive more money while jurisdictions that need less receive less. Basing those weights on services needed by children rather than disability diagnoses significantly improves the accuracy of this system.
  • Exceptional-Need Funds: Districts (especially small ones) sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by the high cost of educating one or two particularly needy children. This type of fund, managed and predominantly financed by the state, acts as an insurance mechanism for districts that can’t cover the full cost of educating high-need pupils along with all others under their purview.
The report makes a number of observations about autism in particular:

It’s pretty clear that the number of high-need youngsters is rising. Between 2000–01 and 2009–10, the population of students with autism spectrum disorders (which require, on average, almost three times the number of dollars as students with less severe disabilities) quadrupled:9,10 In California alone, over 45,000 additional students were determined to be “on the spectrum” in the 2000s.11 Since 2003, Massachusetts schools have enrolled over 30,000 additional students who have been diagnosed with autism or moderate-to-severe health, communication, or neurological impairments, while the number of lower-cost, specific learning disabilities decreased by nearly the same amount.12 The Bay State also saw its special-education spending increase by 57 percent between 2001 and 2010 (as overall education spending rose 42 percent), due in large measure to growth in the number of high-need students.

Census-based funding partially solves the problem of overdiagnosis. (Only partially, as parents may still press on districts to provide the highest levels of service possible—and additional services of various kinds.) But it also carries the problems that accompany ill-targeted funding. By comparison, funding high-need students based on multiple weights—or “multiweight funding”—sets up a sturdier, albeit still imperfect, framework.34 Under such a system (employed by a dozen states in 2009), dollars are distributed in tiered amounts. A student receiving standard instruction receives unweighted, base-level funding (and thus has a “multiplier” of one).35 A student receiving some additional supports may have a multiplier of 1.5, or 2. For those who require significant additional supports, the multiplier may be 4 or even more (for example, Ohio’s multiplier for autism and traumatic brain injuries is 4.72). How a student qualifies for those tiers—as well as the number of tiers—depends on state policy. The typical way that states assign weights (within special education) is through medical diagnosis alone (which, despite its ubiquity, is not the best method; see below). For example, in South Carolina where the base state aid was about $5000 per pupil (2009), a student diagnosed with autism would bring her district $12,850 ($5,000 times the multiplier of 2.57, see Table 1).
 Along with more tailored and targeted cost estimates, transitioning away from a diagnosis-based system decreases incentives for overdiagnosis (or at least decreases the payout). Instead of a borderline student either having or not having autism (a difference of many thousands of state dollars), the difference may be a two or a three on a five-point scale measuring communication skills (within a matrix of many different skills). Being a borderline student and falling over that line may mean a mild increase in estimated need, but the jump is significantly less than jumping from a no diagnosis to a yes.
 9. Janie Scull and Amber M. Winkler, Shifting Trends in Special Education (Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Institute, May 2011), Parrish, “Who’s Paying the Rising Cost of Special Education?”11. “Data Quest,” California Department of Education, Data Quest, last modified August 21, 2013,
...34. Seven states have single student weights, meaning that districts receive additional special-education funding on a yes-no basis, regardless of the severity of a child’s disability or the amount of educational services needed.35. Weights are not restricted to special education, however. A state may weight students based on whether they are in a small or large district, if they are in poverty, etc.