In The Politics of Autism, I write about special education and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Some states do a reasonably good job, but Texas has not been one of them. A 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation revealed that tens of thousands of disabled students were refused access to services because of a de-facto enrollment cap.
Over 13 percent of US students participate in Special Education (SE) programs annually, at a cost of $40 billion. However, the effect of SE placements remains unclear. This paper uses administrative data from Texas to examine the long-run effect of reducing SE access. Our research design exploits variation in SE placement driven by a state policy that required school districts to reduce SE caseloads to 8.5 percent. We show that this policy led to sharp reductions in SE enrollment. These reductions in SE access generated significant reductions in educational attainment, suggesting that marginal participants experience long-run benefits from SE servicesThe conclusion:
Our results strongly indicate that SE services prepare students with disabilities better
for long-run success. We find that in the average school district (with initial SE enrollment of 13 percent), 5th grade SE cohorts experienced a 3.5 percentage point increase in the likelihood of losing SE four years after 5th grade, a 1.9 percentage point decrease in the likelihood of high school completion, and a 1.2 percentage point decrease in the likelihood of college enrollment. These outcomes are strong predictors of adult success. The magnitude of the estimates is larger among less-advantaged youth and among those attending school in districts with lower wealth and lower average achievement. Our results are robust to a number of specification checks, including student attrition from the sample and differences in trends across the types of districts that would have been closer to or further from compliance with the 8.5 percent threshold prior to implementation.
Having demonstrated that the imposition of the SE enrollment target impacted the likelihood of SE participation, we employ an IV approach that allows us to identify how SE removal impacts long-run educational outcomes. We use policy exposure as an instrument for SE removal and find that SE removal decreases the likelihood a student completes high school by 52.2 percentage points and decreases the likelihood of college enrollment by 37.8 percentage points. Again, we find that these results are driven by less-advantaged youth. Our results suggest there are large, meaningful, long-run returns to investing in SE services in the public K-12 school setting for students on the margin of placement, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
While this paper shows robust evidence on the direct impact of SE placement on educational attainment decisions, the limited time after the policy does not yet allow us to fully follow students into the labor market. The large wage differential associated with one’s decision to enroll in college suggests that reduced college enrollment is likely to have negative effects on later labor market outcomes, once these outcomes are able to fully realize. Understanding the longer-run labor market effects will be the focus of future research.