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Doing What is Required Under Special Ed Laws

Rather than outsourcing special education services, districts such as the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Unified School District and the Simsbury (Conn.) Public Schools have been scrutinizing the scope and duration of the services they provide.

“We’ve really been proactive,” explains Scottsdale’s interim superintendent, David Peterson. “We’ve brought special education folks, curriculum folks and district administrators together, and we’ve done a lot to educate them about what IDEA is.” What they’ve done includes consulting legal counsel as to what the federal law requires of districts. “Sometimes it’s a matter of, ‘Do we have to do this?’” he says. “You can become too nurturing to a student.”

At the heart of Scottsdale’s approach are effective meetings among special education staff, teachers and parents to develop individual education plans without going overboard. “We have a constituency that has a high level of expectation, and parents are going to advocate—and they should—but we don’t have to agree with it,” Peterson says. “That’s part of the training for holding effective IEP meetings, because sometimes you can agree to something that is cost-prohibitive.”

There is also an ongoing dialogue between special education and classroom teachers, Peterson continues, “so they can say to parents these are the things we can do in the regular classroom without going outside of it.” The district engages parents early in the process of developing IEPs. “By being proactive [in engaging them early in the process], when we say, ‘This is what’s needed,’” parents will be more likely to agree.

In Simsbury, meanwhile, Superintendent Diane Ullman has led the effort to deploy resources more efficiently—without sacrificing quality—starting with well-defined criteria for the entry into and exit out of special ed. “We’re making sure that we’re using the same metrics in all special education therapies and making sure that the students getting those services still need them,” she says.

The district also has overhauled its early intervention program, replacing more than 30 paraprofessional aides assigned to individual students with eight “highly qualified” teachers of reading, who work with groups of two or three students. “The kids are getting better instruction from highly qualified people at a reduced cost,” Ullman points out, noting that the changes have saved the district $200,000 annually.

A review of the district’s speech therapy program differentiated the students who could be serviced in groups from those requiring one-on-one attention. “We went from 10 speech therapists to 6,” Ullman says. “Lo and behold, we saved another $300,000 a year.”

Between the 2007-2008 and 2010-2011 school years, Ullman reports, the percentage of the budget devoted to special education has declined from 19.6 percent to 18.2 percent. “There’s a sort of prevailing attitude that special education can’t be touched because of the laws,” she concludes, referring to money-saving changes in the district’s program. “But we’re also in an era where we have to scrutinize every last account.”