No issue in Wisconsin government has grown faster in the last decade than special education. It has accelerated to a $1 billion per year educational program with little accountability
In the 2000-2001 school year, Wisconsin school districts reported spending over one-billion dollars to educate and otherwise serve the state’s 125,358 students in special education. Some of this cost was covered by equalization aid from the State of Wisconsin to school districts and by the $315,681,400 the state allocated for special education categorical aid. Given the latter expenditure, special education is, by a comfortable margin, the most expensive categorical aid education program in Wisconsin. In addition, the federal government allocated to Wisconsin over
$78,000,000 in general aid and approximately $8,000,00 in specific grants for special education purposes. Meanwhile, the portion of special education costs not covered by either state or federal aid was spent from the general education budgets of individual districts. In sum, special education accounts for an enormous part of the public education budget at both the state and local level.
With healthy and growing levels of funding comes, as it should, the attention of a great many educators, politicians, public interest groups, and taxpayers as to whether special education dollars are being wisely spent and, if they are not being efficiently used, how that may be accomplished. A central issue is whether all of the students identified as in need of special education truly need such labeling and the comprehensive, costly special treatment that accompanies it, or whether portions of the state’s special education students could be just as effectively taught under the methods of regular education but at a dramatically lower cost. The latter option may demand that certain accommodations be made for some students, but it would keep those students out of the costly and stigmatizing realm of special education. Addressing this issue, this report analyzes the growing concern over the possible misidentification and over-identification of students into special education in Wisconsin.
Special education is one part education and at least two parts a system of bureaucratic and legalistic imperatives, all of which govern what is essentially a public policy decision over which students should be served by a differentiated mode of instruction and what services those children should receive. Therefore, this report begins by outlining the process by which a student becomes placed in special education, highlighting some of the procedural, legal, and administrative aspects that bear on this system.
This report continues this discussion by addressing some specific issues concerning the over-identification of special education students and Wisconsin’s ever-growing special education incidence rate. In particular, it inspects the distribution of special education students across the multiple eligibility categories by which children are determined to be disabled and in need of special education. In July of 2001, new eligibility criteria for placing children in special education went into effect in Wisconsin. Many commentators harbor concerns that these new criteria will only continue a growing trend in the increasing percentage of students being placed in special education. This analysis then segues into a thorough inspection of some of the eligibility criteria used in Wisconsin. In particular, the terribly open and subjective categories of “learning disabled” and “emotionally disturbed,” which constitute the bulk of Wisconsin special education students, are discussed at length.
Statewide, slightly over 12% of the state’s total K-12 student population is classified as in need of special education, and the percentage has been steadily rising. However, across the state there exists a wide disparity among districts in the percentage of each districts’ students identified as in need of special education. Throughout this report, extensive across-district comparisons are made using data from all 426 of Wisconsin’s school districts.* These comparisons show the large differences across districts in terms of rates of referral to special education, rates of placement in special education, rates of reevaluations resulting in continuing special education, the percentages of students placed according to all the disability groups, and so forth. The wide disparities found across all these measures suggest that the process of identifying students for special education is far from being uniform and, at a minimum, should be adequately explained by district personnel involved in the special education decision-making process.
Moreover, a startling disparity with special education placement rates by student ethnicity occurs in some districts. Across the state, and in some districts in particular, certain ethnic minorities are at a much greater risk of being placed in special education. For example, a black student in the Madison Metropolitan School District and in four other of the state’s 25 largest school districts is more than twice as likely as his or her white counterpart to be placed within special education. This finding reflects national trends in the possible over-identification of certain racial minorities into special education. If a general occurrence of over-identification is happening in Wisconsin, then these students are particularly being harmed by such improper and unnecessary placement in special education.
Special education in Wisconsin is at a crossroads. While nearly every politician, education bureaucrat, teacher, parent, and other person involved in special education agrees that elements of the state’s special education system need serious modifications — whether in terms of financing, program administration, or policy focus — few agree as to the precise contours of these changes. The data and analyses presented throughout this report will help to inform this discussion. Specifically, this report raises concerns over the system by which students, many of whom may not be truly disabled, come to be placed in the costly confines of special education.