One Insider's Perspective on Special Education

By Lewis Collins/School Administrator, May 2015
My toughest case as a special education director involved a complex and costly due process hearing brought against my school district at the very end of my tenure there. After 25 years as a director, this was my first due process and I was to start the next day as superintendent at a much larger district.
    My new board of education chair was sympathetic, but wondered why I needed to devote three days to this case. I told her I didn’t think I’d need all that time, but as it turned out, I did. After one day of witness preparation and one day of sitting and waiting to be called, I finally appeared on the witness stand on the third day.
    As unnerving as testimony from a hostile opposing attorney can be, I held my ground and heard a month later that we had won on every single alleged violation of law and regulation. I was, of course, ecstatic. I believed I could finally move on to my new position without having to think I had cost my former school district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A Baffling Morass
For most superintendents and their school board members, special education represents an often-baffling legal morass — and typically the second biggest cost center in your operating budget. We know we are required by state and federal law to provide an appropriate education to students with disabilities, but most of us did not receive specialized training in relevant case law and in programming for students with special needs. We know special education costs can spiral out of control quickly and cause the board and community to ask some hard questions about those programs.
    So how do we know if our own school district is in good health with our special education programs? How would we even know what to look for? Given the expense of the mandate and the need to do our best to educate students with disabilities, what can a district do to ensure we’re both honoring the law and spending wisely?
    First, I’d make certain all three of these legal requirements are met to guarantee a student qualifies for special education services:

  • A child must have a federal- or state-identified disability; and
  • The disability must be causing an adverse effect on the child’s education performance; and
  • The child must need specialized instruction to access the general curriculum.

    These three legs of eligibility often are overlooked by well-meaning staff who just want to make sure a student receives “a little extra help.” Many students struggle at school and for hundreds of reasons as varied as poor home environments to situational anxiety and food insecurity. Having a disability is just one reason for poor school performance, but making them “disabled” to provide some extra assistance is simply wrong. We need to serve students who truly meet the requirements and then go to bat for them 100 percent. If we serve each needy student regardless of eligibility, we’re wasting our resources and diluting our focus. Labelling a student as disabled is serious business for the child and the district.

Systemic Problems
If your district’s eligibility rate is greater than 15 percent, it’s likely you have a systemic problem that will require a dose of site review and professional development for your special education decision makers. If you have an excessive number of paraprofessionals ordered on your individual education plans, you’ll need a similar fix. And if your special education costs are growing exponentially, you need to get a handle on it before it creates a crisis you can no longer handle internally.
    Special education need not be a liability to your district and can be understood better with some limited but focused professional development for you, as the superintendent, and your key staff. A site visit and review of your files and programs could save you hundreds of thousands of dollars and allow the district to provide even better services to students by returning the focus to their specialized instruction.
    Your state education agency often provides these targeted reviews, and private consultants also are available if you want a less public scrutiny of your district’s special education programs and costs. We can be both compassionate and smart in fulfilling the intent of the federal mandate to serve children with disabilities, and that’s a win-win for all involved.


Lewis Collins, a retired superintendent, works as a consultant in special education in Readfield, Maine. E-mail: