The Special Education Epidemic

We're not saying that anyone is cynically gaming the system just out of greed for a bigger budget. Of course it's possible that's going on in some places, but we think it's much more likely that schools are just trying to provide as much help as possible. If you can expand your educational programs for students who are falling behind in class by putting a "disabled" label on them, that's probably motivated by good intentions.

Alas, we know where the road paved by good intentions leads. Labeling kids as disabled when they're not does them more harm then good. It means they'll be getting services that aren't appropriate to their needs, and the system will have lowered expectations for their potential. Plus, once that "disabled" label goes on, it almost never comes off.

Fortunately, there has now been a partial acknowledgement of the problem. A new program called "response to intervention" is designed to help ensure that students aren't classified as learning disabled simply for lack of good teaching in the early grades. It allows states to divert up to 15% of their special education funding to early intervention programs.

We call this a "partial" acknowledgement of the problem because it only acknowledges that some students are being diagnosed as learning disabled when they're really "teaching disabled." It doesn't reflect an acknowledgement that financial incentives are at work.

And that's the problem with the policy. It assumes that the only problem here is a misdirection of resources; that schools would be providing better teaching if only they could free up the funds.

But school spending has been growing nonstop for decades. It has roughly doubled since 1976; we now spend about $10,000 per student. Lack of money isn't a problem. And a very large body of empirical research has consistently failed to find any relationship between spending and outcomes.

Here's another way of making the same point. If we don't change the incentives that schools work under, why would we expect the new "intervention" teaching to be done any differently than the teaching they're doing now? And if the teaching they're doing now isn't working, why would we expect more of the same to work?

If school behavior is being driven by incentives, that behavior will resist change until we reform the incentives. Obviously more states should reform their funding systems, but given the political obstacles to such reform, we're not holding our breath. And a federal law mandating reform could violate federalism. On the other hand, auditing of special education placements wouldn't expand federal authority beyond its current scope and could be effective.

But the best solution is to create a voucher program for disabled students. Five states (Florida, Ohio, Utah, Arizona, and Georgia) have already done so, and the programs are successful. In addition to providing a counterbalance to the "bounty" incentive to diagnose, vouchers improve education for disabled students. Our research has shown that Florida's program, the first of its kind and the largest, not only provides superior services for the students who use it, it also induces public schools to provide a better education to disabled students who remain.

If even an eighth of all special education students are only there due to funding incentives -- and our data suggest that's a very conservative estimate - that's about a million children. We need to get beyond baby steps and adopt serious reforms aimed at protecting their interests, as well as improving education for all special education students.

Greg Forster is a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Jay Greene is the endowed professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.