Yes, Virginia, There Is a Special Ed Bounty

Recently, we wrote a column here on Pajamas Media drawing attention to the problem of financial incentives in special education. Laura McKenna responded with a column challenging a number of our assertions. Since her column raises far too many issues to be dealt with adequately in a comment thread, we’d like to thank PJM for giving us the opportunity to respond with yet another column.

Our original column went over the results of an empirical study we had conducted, showing that special education enrollments grew much faster in states that fund special education on a per-student basis. In most states, but not all of them, when a school places a student into special education that school gets an increase in funding. The empirical evidence establishes that growth in special education enrollments has been fueled by the presence of these financial incentives.

McKenna’s responses to our evidence fall into four categories:

Appeals to emotion and superior personal experience. McKenna writes that since her son was diagnosed with a disability, “I am no longer just an academic who studies education policy from the ivory tower, but a parent on the front lines of the special education wars.” Most of her column discusses her own experiences and those of people she knows. The assumption of most of her column therefore seems to be that our statistical evidence is trumped by her perceptions of the system based on her direct experience.

There are three fatal problems with this. First, we, too, have direct, personal experience of special education. Second, we appealed to the evidence of national statistics, which perceptions based on personal experiences cannot refute. Third, even what McKenna reports of her personal experiences does not establish what she thinks it does.

Both of us are parents of disabled children. We, too, are not academics who study education policy from the ivory tower, but parents on the front lines of the special education wars.

The difference is, unlike McKenna, we do not assume that our subjective perceptions based on our personal experiences must be a fair and objective way of determining how the special education system as a whole functions. We went out and collected a large body of empirical data and used it to conduct a broad statistical study.

If McKenna isn’t willing to engage with the detailed statistical analysis conducted in our study – and her column doesn’t – then we don’t see how her personal experiences could refute it.

But even if they could, they don’t – because McKenna only writes about her difficulties in getting special education services, not a special education diagnosis. Our argument is that schools have a financial incentive to put a “special education” label on students, not that it has an incentive to provide them with good services once they have that label. We will return to this subject below.

In addition, contrary to McKenna’s overwrought suggestion, we did not call for anything that can be remotely characterized as a “crackdown [that] will lead to a witch hunt atmosphere that will create a hostile environment for disabled kids.” To the contrary, our main policy recommendation was to provide school vouchers to disabled children, as five states already do. Empirical research shows that not only do vouchers deliver better services to disabled students who use them, they also improve services for disabled students remaining in public schools.

It is partly because we are parents of disabled students that we are particularly concerned to examine this issue using systematic data. The misidentification of students as learning disabled when they are really only behind in school because of poor teaching or other factors has swelled special education enrollments and expenditures. Those increases have created a substantial level of resentment among families who are concerned that the growth of special education is taking resources away from other children, as well as from taxpayers generally. This backlash threatens funding and services for all disabled students. And the financial incentive to identify students as learning disabled (a lower-cost category) shifts resources away from students in higher-cost categories who really need greater disability services.

Parents of disabled students have an especially strong interest in taking steps to reduce the false identification of learning disabilities.