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Report Offers Three Ways to Improve Funding for Special Ed. Students

Creating district cooperatives, funding students based on multiple weights, and setting aside funds are three ways districts, particularly small ones, could better serve their highest-need special education students.

Those are the key recommendations from a recent report, "Financing the Education of High-Need Students" by Matthew Richmond and Daniela Fairchild from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The paper's intention is not to show how national special education policy or finances should be overhauled (although its authors said that needs to happen, too). They wanted to point out some "worthy repairs" that could be made "around the periphery of current policy."

"Our proposed policy changes do not begin to cure all that ails special education, but they will bring greater efficiency, rationality, and, we hope, effectiveness to a corner of the public education environment that is sorely in need of improvement," according to the report.

All of the strategies highlighted are being used by at least one or more states, so they are doable if states have the "requisite imagination and political will," according to the report. Although federal officials should do more to make that easier on states and districts, flexibility exists to make these changes.

Each of the report's funding strategies have flaws, so the report suggests states adopt all three. No state has taken that kind of action for its students.

High-needs students were defined as those whose education costs at least three times that of the average student, and an estimated 5 percent of the special education population nationally fall into that category. The number of those students is rising, as evidenced by the quadrupling of students with autism spectrum disorders between 2000-01 and 2009-10.

On creating cooperatives, the report said many districts, especially small ones, and charter schools don't have the size and capacity to serve high-need students effectively and affordably. A high-need student will need mutliple and complex services, so smaller districts lack the economies of scale that larger districts have.

Those districts should participate in cooperatives to provide better services to their students, the authors argue. Those efforts can take different forms, and states should provide encouragement to districts.

On funding students on multiple weights, the report said most formulas are based on the number and poverty of students, and that can be an inefficient way of funding high-need students' education. The authors suggest allocating funding in tiered amounts using multiple weights, saying that that "sets up a sturdier, albeit still perfect, framework." A dozen states have take this approach.

Finally, because of the high cost of educating some special-need students, at least 32 states have set up a fund that acts as an insurance mechanism to help cover those expenses. States can earmark funds for those accounts and offset some of those costs.

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