Do We Spend Too Much on Special Education?


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I was recently asked this question while presenting at Education Commission of the States’ National Forum in Washington, D.C., and my response surprised most of the meeting attendees.  I said that we don’t know if we’re spending too much, or even too little, on special education in this country because we don’t know how much we actually spend. We know how much additional federal funding we allocate to special education students – and we can (kind of) estimate how much state funding is allocated. However, we do not know how much of this funding is actually being spent to educate special needs students.

State Funding for Special Education

A recent report from Education Commission of the States found all 50 states provide some additional funding for special education students. Seventeen states provide funding through programs outside of the state’s primary formula. In these 17 states we can track exactly how much additional funding is provided. The remaining 33 states use their primary funding formula to distribute special education funding which makes it very difficult, bordering on impossible, to determine how much additional funding is actually provided.

Each year the United States Census  estimates how much state revenue is dedicated to special education programs. In the 2013-14 school year (the most recent year available) the United States Census estimated that states provided an additional $19 billion in revenue for special education programs. Now here’s the problem with that number – the report says that 13 states provided no additional revenue for special education programs and we know that they all provide some funding (see above). However, this $19 billion estimate is all we have available.

Adding Federal Funding to the Mix

In the 2013-14 school year the federal government provided an additional $11.5 billion in special education funding through the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA), part B. When we combine state and federal funding there was at least $30.5 billion in additional revenue provided for special education programs in 2013-14, which equates to approximately $4,700 in revenue per special education student.

The Difference Between Revenue and Expenditures

There is little information available about how much school districts in the U.S. are actually expending on the education of students with disabilities. Most states don’t require districts to report their special education expenditures, and those states that do tend not to require that they provide detailed financial information. The most recent attempt to account for actual special education expenditures was undertaken by the Special Education Expenditure Project (SEEP). SEEP, funded by the federal government, reviewed special education expenditure data from the 1999-2000 school year and found that average expenditures for a general education student that year was $6,556 compared to $12,474 for students with disabilities. So this is our best estimate and it’s 16 years old.

Why This Is Important

We only have estimated numbers on how much special education revenue is provided to school districts and a 16-year-old study to inform us how much we actually spend on these students. Without better data we can’t determine if we’re spending too much or too little on special education. One thing state policymakers could do is look at requiring schools to report their actual expenditures on special education students. Districts and charters may require some state help to do this – but it could be worth the investment of state dollars to get a handle on this important topic. 

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