The biggest difference between schools I attended a half-century ago and schools I visit now is special education: It took a while for our country to grasp how to help students with extra needs.
Many were amazed when Richard Rothstein and Karen Hawley Miles of the Economic Policy Institute revealed that about 60 percent of increased education spending between 1967 and 1991 went to special and compensatory education for students with disabilities or disadvantaged backgrounds.
Rothstein and Miles spent months prying the data out of obtuse school budgets, and there has been little work like that since. We journalists mostly ignore special-education developments. But now, thankfully, we have another outpouring of surprises on how special-education money is being spent — and how little we understand it.
Education Week reporter Christina A. Samuels, a former Washington Post colleague who is one of the few journalists to make special education her beat, has teamed with the Education Week Research Center to analyze the annual state reports on disability education that lurk in deep databases, usually untouched. Their findings show a dramatic 165 percent rise in the number of students classified as having autism between the 2005-2006 and 2014-2015 school years. They also reveal a decade-long decline in disability categories, such as specific learning disabilities and speech and language impairments, that have usually included the most children.
Why is this happening? The rise of autism in schools parallels its new prominence in the news, with parents, doctors and educators fighting over treatment methods, funding and what might be causing the brain development disorders.
The decline in the number of students in the more typical categories is quite another matter. It is a mystery for which Samuels, in her detailed April 20 report, offers many possible explanations.
“Research has shown that some children with disabilities are being reclassified; for example, a child who might once have been identified as intellectually disabled or emotionally disturbed might now be classified as autistic,” Samuels wrote. New programs providing individual assistance to students in academic trouble might have reduced the number identified as learning-disabled.
Sadly, there are other explanations that involve bureaucratic obfuscation rather than honest attempts to raise achievement. The former federal No Child Left Behind Act had some provisions that critics say “acted as incentives to keep the special-education counts low,” Samuels reported. “For example, schools were required to report the test scores of special-education students if they were present in schools in large enough numbers. If the number of special-education students was less than a state-determined threshold, those scores would not have to be reported separately.”
Much of what the Education Week team found in their deep dig into state data seems odd. Although the number of children with specific learning disabilities declined every year from 2004-2005 to 2013-2014, it went up last year. That reversal was fueled almost entirely by a big jump in children with disabilities in the state of New York. More-accurate assessments of private school students in New York City might explain some of that increase, but not all of it, Samuels concluded.
No one knows what exactly is going on, something the Education Week report makes clear. “It has been 16 years since anyone has taken a big-picture look at how special-education dollars are spent,” Samuels wrote. The last report, from 1999-2000, said that states spent $3.7 billion on transportation for special-education students. That has probably been cut back because more students with disabilities have been assigned to their home schools, but there appear to be no studies confirming that.
At the moment, 5.8 million U.S. students aged 6 to 21 receive special-education services. Dedicated teachers are trying many new approaches, looking for what each child needs most. But they haven’t been told much about what spending works and what doesn’t. That puts them, their schools and their students at an unfortunate disadvantage.