Special education in Ohio – like in other states – is a maze of complexity, highly bureaucratic and compliance driven, often a point of contention between educators and parents, frequently litigious, and the single fastest growing portion of spending on public education. It has become something of a sacred cow in education and has been largely impervious to change or improvement efforts. Worse, despite the spending children in special education programs are not making gains academically.

Can special education be done better while controlling its growth? This is a question we’ve been asked over and over by school leaders and superintendents who struggle to serve all children well while dealing with tighter and tighter budgets. For answers, in partnership with the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio, we turned to Nathan Levenson, one of the country’s leading thinkers on doing more with fewer resources in special education and who has done extensive work with local school districts here in the Buckeye State and across the country. The result is a thought-provoking policy paper, Applying Systems Thinking to Improve Special Education in Ohio.

Levenson explains that Ohio’s resources for special education - $7 billion spent annually – are “siloed” not only across the K-12 education landscape but also across a dozen or more state and county agencies. In fact, he reports that “less than 50 percent of funds that help provide children receiving special education services are officially special education dollars.”

He suggests three major opportunities for making special education more efficient and better for students. Specifically, he recommends:

  • Expand the role of Educational Service Centers (ESCs) through the power of competition. Ohio’s 56 ESCs already work to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of services provided to students with special needs. The Buckeye State can build on this strength by creating an information infrastructure for entrepreneurial, results-oriented, high-performing Educational Service Centers to expand their geographic reach and the services they provide. The state department of education could accelerate this process by providing the performance and cost data of ESCs to both schools and parents – this would not only make them better informed consumers but also help foster competition for services.
  • Encourage the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) to help accelerate the shift to more results-oriented, cost-effective special education. Levenson recommends ODE revise its rules and policies regarding identification of students with disabilities and the certification and workload of the adults that serve them. Levenson shows how this sort of regulatory relief could save districts hundreds of millions of dollars while maintaining or even expanding services for students.
  • Make school districts the hubs of integrated services from many state and local agencies. Parents of students with disabilities first enter the world of special education through one of many entry points, often before their child enters Kindergarten and the traditional public schools. What is said, done, or promised for the one or two years before entering school can set the expectations for a child’s entire 15-year school career. Since school districts will provide most of a student’s education and special education services, they should be part of the planning of the services for a student with disabilities from the beginning.

Spending on special education has grown at double the pace of overall K-12 spending in Ohio in recent years, yet children receiving special education services struggle to perform well academically. By making some of the common-sense changes to state policies and local practices recommended by Levenson, Ohio could both save money on special education and improve the services that students receive.

Levenson provides concrete examples.

By lifting the current ban on the use of speech and language assistants for the state’s 30,000 students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) that require only speech and language services, Ohio’s schools could save $100 million a year statewide and not reduce one minute of service to students.

Or Ohio could use funds and experts from the Department of Drug and Alcohol Addiction and the Department of Mental Health to provide counseling services in schools for eligible students. Levenson calls this a “Match Made in Heaven,” and describes how it could result in multiple benefits at lower costs including: a) better access for students, b) more expert counselors, c) more students served, and d) relief for school leaders who are currently asked to provide services to students they are ill-equipped to offer.

Levenson’s paper on special education in Ohio came out the same day as his national Fordham Institute special education report, Boosting the Quality—and Efficiency—of Special Education. In the national paper Levenson makes broad recommendations for achieving efficiencies in special education across the country and suggests that small changes in practice could save more than $10 billion annually. This report also draws its conclusions from a national database on special education spending—the largest and most detailed such ever built.

Taken together, these two reports offer practical ideas for better-quality, more cost-effective special education services that will require multiple partners to work together, not alone. But by integrating these efforts, coordinating policies, and playing to strengths the many partners serving children with disabilities can do the work better and at less cost.

Read the full report here.

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