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Rivers of Red

Ten actions to control the impact of special education costs by MARYANN BYRNES
“Rivers of Red in Special Ed.”
The newspaper headline leaped out at me as I innocently walked through my local library’s periodicals section. It stopped me in my tracks, just as it was designed to do—this article lamenting huge budget overruns in special education.

Most people reading the headline would shake their heads, muttering, “Can’t we do something about that system? It’s run amok.”

My own mutterings were similar, but I read the headline from a different viewpoint—that of someone who served as a special education administrator for 18 years in three New England school districts. In those districts I had faced rising special education costs each year and knew my colleagues shared the experience. A fellow special education administrator often recited his superintendent’s comment, “When I see you walk through the door, all I see is money flying out the other way.”

For the last five years, I have gained an additional perspective on the thorny topic of special education finance while conducting programmatic and financial evaluations of several school districts. Mounting special education costs frequently drive requests for these studies.

Minimizing Expenses
Special education is expensive. Unfortunately, many of the costs cannot be anticipated. Experience convinces me that some special education expenses are predictable and that others can be avoided. Superintendents who implemented one or more of the ideas below believed they gained some control over special education costs. While these solutions are genuine, the school districts’ names have been changed to respect their confidentiality.

* Expect and budget for predictable needs.
For five years, the Springside Public Schools’ special education expenditures had already exceeded their budget by February. Administrators deliberated annually which general education services would be cut to fund the shortfall.

While searching for ways to avoid this annual event, the district’s administrative council realized the special education budget always was built on the children already receiving services, subtracting costs for those who would be graduating. As in all districts, student needs would emerge in the 18 months between the budget forecast and the last month of the budget year, especially since enrollment was growing. The administrators decided to change their strategy. For every 100 new children enrolling, the budget would project that 12 of these children would need special education services, including two to require extensive (and likely expensive) assistance. This change did not eliminate surprises, but it certainly helped the Springside district budget for likely expenses instead of being unprepared for them.

* Provide literacy supports, especially in primary grades.
Each January, the Middletown Schools saw a flood of 1st-grade referrals to special education, reflecting worries about children who had not yet begun to read. One year, general education paraprofessionals assisted teachers during literacy blocks, and referrals went way down. Most children were learning to read with just a little more attention. Those who continued to struggle were forwarded for special education referral with much more information and early intervention. Some children need extra time and/or attention to develop, but they don’t have a disability. A neighboring district kept its traditional staffing pattern. Guess which one had larger special education costs?

* Use more than one reading approach.
North Shore Public Schools had adopted a whole language, literature-based reading approach. Phonics instruction was available only for children served by special education. The school board did not understand why the special education enrollment figures, as well as the budget, were rising.

No single reading approach reaches everyone. If one did, we all would be using it. Being a one-method school system does control textbook costs. It also guarantees a legitimate demand for options. Ensuring that the only alternative is special education increases costs that continue throughout the grades.

* Consider the consequences of curriculum changes.
Requests for occupational therapy evaluations and services were rising fast in the Happy Valley school system. In fact they had doubled over the past six months. The budget was blown. There was not enough time in the therapist’s week to absorb the new referrals. Why was this happening? The overbooked occupational therapist pointed to the new writing program.

To meet state standards, the children in Happy Valley were being asked to write more. That’s not bad news in itself, yet the school district had no handwriting program. No one taught the youngest students how to hold the pencils they were using to write those wonderful, inventively spelled words.

Two solutions existed: Hire more therapists or institute a handwriting program. The first option increases special education numbers and costs. The second strengthens curriculum and instruction, teaches children to have legible handwriting and avoids unnecessary special education costs.

* Actively teach basic study skills and organizational strategies.
Halcyon has two middle schools. In one, all students use the same agenda book (a junior organizer that includes week-long schedules, places to record assignments and hints on organizing and planning schoolwork) and attend study skills classes. Students in the other middle school are on their own. Special education numbers and costs are considerably higher in the second school. Most middle school students need to learn to study for tests, to read textbooks, to divide long-term assignments into manageable chunks that can be completed on time.

Check your own schools to find whether these essential skills are deliberately taught. Address them and your students will be better prepared to tackle the secondary curriculum. Ignore them and you will see demands for special education services to help typical students learn these basics.

* Link resource authority and fiscal accountability.
Site-based management sometimes separates authority and accountability. The “Rivers of Red” newspaper coverage described a school district in which principals could commit tutorial services whenever they identified a need, while the special education administrator was accountable for the tutoring budget. No systemwide guidelines helped principals decide how and when to use tutors or to address the implications of increasing costs. There was no way to control the budget without these.

Asking principals to deliver all needed services—and expecting the special education administrator to account and pay for increasing costs—contributes to conflict and financial confusion.

* Share expenses with others.
Faced with exorbitant costs to rent a wheelchair van, the Hightown Schools joined forces with their senior citizens’ center. Together they purchased a well-equipped van and shared costs for insurance, operation and a driver. Children and seniors gained a great means of transportation, available to each on a complementary schedule. The van’s sign proclaimed its joint ownership. Costs for each group were moderated and a cross-generational partnership was forged. Similar opportunities exist in many towns.

* Expect to hear some parents are unhappy about decisions made by your special education administrator.
Superintendents do not like hearing that parents are unhappy. Happy parents mean happy school board members and a smoother life for everyone. A superintendent in my area told her special education administrator that she wanted him to satisfy all parents. The quickest way to ensure your budget spirals out of control is to tell your special education administrator it is most important that you never hear a parent complain.

Sometimes parents of children with disabilities are not happy with the services offered. They may be angry their child has a disability and want someone to fix that problem now, no matter what the cost. For them, each day that passes without necessary services lessens the likelihood their child will flourish. Your special education administrator can keep most parents happy most of the time by managing a system that is predictable, consistent and in adherence with the law. This may mean saying “no” sometimes. Faced with having you displeased about either rising costs or unhappy parents, it will usually be easier to choose a larger budget.

* Resist overruling the decisions of school teams because you feel sympathetic to parents.
The superintendent listened carefully to the parents’ compelling story. A new therapy guaranteed their small child’s disability would be “cured.” The parents implored the superintendent to change the decision of the team responsible for the individual education plan, which had declined to support this intervention. Moved by the plea, the superintendent agreed the services were worth a chance. Three years later, the district is still paying for that very expensive therapy and the child has made only minimal progress. And the superintendent has a number of phone calls each month, asking for time to explain the benefits of a new intervention.

Many administrators feel particularly vulnerable when faced with a concerned parent whose child has a disability. Resist the temptation to agree to requests out of empathy. Your special education teachers work hard to be knowledgeable about the effectiveness of various educational methods. If you believe in and support the deliberation that goes into evaluating and choosing services, your faculty will feel trusted, expenses will be more predictable and fewer parents will ask you to be the decision maker.

* Ask your special education administrator for recommendations.
Instead of seeing your special education administrator as a “walking wallet,” consider another view. This person probably knows more about your overall school curriculum and instruction than almost anyone in your district. No one else receives referrals for extra help from all grades.

Ask your special education administrator to analyze referrals and recommend actions to address frequently occurring concerns. You may identify reasonable actions that can moderate special education expenses. Don’t ask and you may overlook a valuable resource.

Surrender or Fight
A report by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, “The Rising Costs of Special Education in Massachusetts: Causes and Effects,” attributes cost increases to a higher prevalence of severe disabilities, privatization of services and increases in family economic and social stressors. The impact of these on children will only grow. Schools will be required to do more and spend more for children with real needs. It is unlikely that the federal government will keep its funding promises.

In the face of these realities, superintendents have a choice. Surrender to the rising tide of special education costs and decry their impact on other programs. Or implement deliberate strategies to avoid drowning in unnecessary expenses.

MaryAnn Brynes is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at University of Massachusetts Boston, 100 Morrissey Blvd., Boston, MA 02125. E-mail: maryann.byrnes@umb.edu