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Special Education Update

Spend Less, Achieve More?

Nathan Levenson, author of “Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education.”More special education funding in a district does not necessarily result in greater student achievement—in fact, it can lead to less, says a first-of-its-kind report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The report, “Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education,” was released in September, and marks the first time special education has been studied in terms of funding and outcomes. It examined data from over 1,400 school districts, representing nearly one-third of all students in the country. Researchers found that there are enormous variations in staffing and, consequently, spending for special education programs from district to district, and adjusting for factors like the number of students or poverty levels does not explain these variations. Large differences exist even among districts with similar demographics in the same state.

Considering this, researchers found 10 pairs of similar districts in five states, with one in each pair spending less on special education but achieving at higher levels. On average, the higher-achieving districts within the pairs had 25 percent more special ed students at the proficient level than the lower-achieving districts, even though the lower-achieving district (in the pair) spent 22 percent more.

If districts with above-average special ed staffing reduced their staff to the national median of roughly eight special ed teachers and eight paraprofessionals per 1,000 students enrolled, collectively they would save over $10 billion per year, the report concludes. “More spending will not necessarily lead to better outcomes for students,” says Nathan Levenson, the report author and managing director of the District Management Council, a firm focused on helping public districts raise achievement and improve operational efficiencies. “As administrators, we need to be looking for things like service delivery models and teacher effectiveness, and keep the focus on results rather than inputs.”

While the report does not prove causation—spending less doesn’t necessarily mean a school will get better results—it does demonstrate that it’s possible to spend less and achieve more. The districts that achieved more with less funding had fewer staff members, but the report did not explore what that smaller staff did to get better outcomes. It recommends that districts employ more effective special ed teachers, rather than more of them or more non-teachers like aides, and carefully manage pupil loads for teachers.

The report’s data came from state and district records, as it has been several years since the federal government has collected comprehensive special ed spending information. “It’s an interesting message that we, as a country, have not been focused on the cost of special education, and in many ways, we haven’t been focused enough on the outcomes of students with special needs,” Levenson says. “Demanding that we spend more money isn’t nearly as beneficial as demanding the kids learn more.”

To read the report, visit