5 Best Ways to Tame Special Education Costs, Improve Services

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Visit Lindamood-Bell for tools to better equip your special education teams.


Special education is a concern for every school district leader. Annual costs tend to rise much faster than for any other item in your school budget. Academic progress for many students can be hard to quantify. And there are so many rules to follow that trying to make any changes seems like walking through a minefield.

First, let’s try to quantify the problems. While the number of students with disabilities has decreased nationwide since 2004-05, it might not feel like it in your district. The percentage of students with autism spectrum disorders has quadrupled between 2000-01 and 2009-10. Costs have risen, too. Autistic students can cost three times the amount to educate than students with less severe disabilities. Special education spending was 18 percent of a district’s budget in 1996 and is 21+ percent of budgets today.

But there is hope. The first thing to realize is that special education changes all the time. So let go of the notion that you can’t alter your program. Chances are, your program has changed recently. Nationwide, the number of interventionists has grown dramatically, while the number of teachers schools employ has remained the same or dropped.

We consulted with school administrators to find some of the best practices that will allow you to improve the education you offer students with disabilities while saving money.

1. Attack problems early.

The oft-repeated claim that every dollar spent on PreK education is worth seven dollars later certainly applies here. Administrators know identifying problems early in a student’s K-12 career is effective; it could potentially enable some students to test out of special education later, further reducing costs.

Gina Gallegos is a literacy coordinator with Cañon City Schools in Colorado. Her district is putting an emphasis on students in K-3. Even though the program only started this year, “We’re seeing some of our kids respond so perfectly that we’re already moving them out of intervention,” she says. “The more we let them squander [time with an] inability to read, the more the gap widens. Some of those kids, formally targeted for special education, won’t have that path.”

Cañon’s superintendent, George Welsh, adds that of the kids who get identified with learning disabilities, there’s “an 80 percent chance that kids just can’t read, and we haven’t figured out why.”

2. Zero in on missing skills.

As Cañon’s superintendent Welsh says, often schools handle reading problems by giving learners the same instruction, just in smaller groups. Welsh has used Lindamood-Bell reading products in both Cañon and his previous district, Center School District. The program’s great strength, he says, is pinpointing the exact problem a student is having with reading, whether it is comprehension or the inability to link an image with the words they are reading.

“I’ve had teachers say, ‘For the first time in my career, I feel like I know why they aren’t reading,’” he adds.

Another Lindamood-Bell customer, Tammy Hatfield, director of special education at Tullahoma City Schools in Tennessee, says the company’s program especially helps her middle and high school teachers. These teachers typically haven’t been trained in how to teach students reading. Using new lesson plans each day geared to an individual’s success also helps keeps students progressing, she adds.

3. Make professional learning continuous.

“Training is crucial, says Cañon’s Gallegos, explaining how to get the best results out of Lindamood-Bell programs. Her district’s teachers get dedicated time in the summer, but also watch groups in action, she adds. “It’s ongoing.”

“Training doesn’t stop after the attendance of a workshop,” concurs Cañon’s Welsh. In his first experience with Lindamood-Bell, the company had a representative on site for months. In Cañon, he’s opted for the company’s virtual assistant. This is where a representative uses an iPad attached to a Segway to zoom around the classroom and help teachers either during the lesson or with pointers afterward. “Every day you get some kind of feedback,” he adds.

When training, don’t forget to include your students’ parents, says Mike Pickard, the executive director of elementary education for Michigan’s Kentwood Public Schools. “We give our parents strategies they can do at home that are going on in school everyday,” he says.

Kentwood’s professional learning for teachers is intense, Pickard says. The district targets the exact skills teachers need, and offers help in those areas. It also provides follow up and monitoring. “That’s how you make changes in professional development,” he says.

4. Think outside your district’s borders.

The larger your district, the easier it may be to afford special education costs, due to economies of scale. It’s pretty hard to grow the size of your district, but you can examine partnering with nearby districts if you aren’t serviced by BOCES.

Sharing a speech pathologist or a specialized van can slice costs drastically. In fact “a 2005 report from Massachusetts, for example, found that if an additional 10 percent of state special education dollars in the Bay State was channeled to collaboratives (rather than to individual districts), the state could have saved $46.5 million that year,” concludes the Fordham report, Financing the Education of High Need Students (2013).

5. Reduce time teachers spend in meetings.

Staffing accounts for about 85 percent of special education costs. So any measures that can increase the amount of time teachers are with students can have drastic effects on your budget. When teachers are in meetings, they can’t be with students, and their absence must be covered by others, which increases spending on staff overall.

“Decreasing the time staff spend attending meetings by three hours a week can reduce staffing levels by 10 percent,” reports the book Spending Money Wisely: Getting the Most From School District Budgets (District Management Council, 2014). The book’s authors wrote that the amount of time teachers spend in meetings could range from 10 percent to 70 percent of their week. Tilting your district to the low end of that spectrum can pay off.

In conclusion, I’ll let the authors of a Fordham Institute report have the last word: “America needs to approach special education with greater creativity and flexibility in the future than it has shown in the past. Instead of engaging in polarizing discussions around whether to mainstream students versus serve them in pull-out settings—or around the disproportionate identification of students by race—let’s focus on how to differentiate learning for all students” (Shifting Trends in Special Education, by Janie Scull and Amber M. Winkler, 2011).

Visit Lindamood-Bell for tools to better equip your special education teams.

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Wayne DOrio

Wayne D’Orio, a senior editor for School Leaders Now, is an award-winning education reporter. His recent work has detailed how the play Hamilton is changing high school education and how the tiny, Silicon Valley-inspired AltSchool aims to change the entire educational system. D’Orio’s work has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post and Scholastic Administrator.