This report is a blueprint for how legislators can include special needs programs in the accountability legislation they have promised to develop and offers further proof of the need for more options for students with disabilities.
Approximately 120,000 children in Wisconsin’s K-12 schools have disabilities, ranging from traumatic brain injuries and significant developmental delays to emotional and behavioral issues to speech and language difficulties.
These are Wisconsin’s most challenged — and challenging — students. And, this analysis reveals, they are too often the ones with immeasurable amounts of unrealized potential.
In 2014, Wisconsin budgeted $368,939,100 in categorical funding for special needs pupils in public and private schools.1 Yet, there is substantial evidence that Wisconsin is failing too many of its students with special needs — particularly those in districts with large numbers of low-income students.
With each additional percentage point increase in free/reduced lunch population, a districts’ special needs graduation rate decreases by 21 percentage points. Special needs students in poorer districts are also much less likely to be proficient in reading than their peers elsewhere.
It is not surprising that the same socioeconomically disadvantaged school districts that struggle to educate their nonspecial needs pupils are struggling to educate their special needs populations as well.
But special needs pupils in such districts are even more likely to trail their classmates on reading test scores, even when accounting for differences in the severity of disabilities from district to district. The higher the percentage of low-income pupils, in other words, the larger the reading proficiency gap between students with special needs and peers in the same district.
Often, the overall low achievement levels in highly socioeconomically disadvantaged districts are attributed to the negative impact on standardized test scores of large numbers of special needs students. Though this impact is real, the low scores for special needs pupils themselves are no less real and no less important. A new focus should be placed on providing improved educational opportunities and alternatives for special needs students in particularly low-performing districts.
Lagging test scores, however, are not the only indication that a new focus should be placed on the education of special needs students, and not just those in generally struggling, low-income districts. An examination of post-high-school outcomes of special needs children across the state shows that 17% are neither going on to higher education nor working one year after graduation. While more must be known about the severity of needs among those students, a disparity in the level of “non-engagement” demonstrates that students in some districts are not faring as well as their peers elsewhere and could benefit from program improvements.
Both the lagging test scores in some districts and post-high-school “non-engagement” suggest strongly that the approach to educating special needs students should be further scrutinized, and low-performing programs should be held accountable. Unfortunately, a lack of meaningful data makes it difficult for parents and students to fully gauge which districts might best serve their needs.
As a result, this paper recommends a framework by which to further measure the strengths and weaknesses of individual Wisconsin school districts’ efforts to educate children with special needs. And it suggests specific ways Wisconsin can better ascertain where and how far we are falling short in helping our most challenged students achieve their full potential. Better information on the strengths and weaknesses of special needs education in individual Wisconsin schools and districts can improve the decision-making of both parents and policymakers, leading to better policy and outcomes for special needs pupils.
The key recommendations:
- Wisconsin should do more to identify and make public the severity of disabilities among the special needs population as a whole in specific districts, and thereby make it easier for parents to gauge the importance of test scores and other typical accountability measures.
- Individual districts should be required to make public the percentage of goals and benchmarks specified in individualized education programs, called IEPs, that are being met.
- The satisfaction level of parents of special needs pupils should be tracked via surveys and representative focus groups.
Finally, while researchers are currently somewhat limited in the ability to determine fully which districts are most or least successful in educating special needs students, it is clear that different districts have different — neither better nor worse, perhaps, but just different — outcomes.
Rural districts, for instance, have the smallest percentage of special needs students pursuing further schooling but the largest percentage of special needs graduates employed. Suburban districts have an extremely high number of special needs graduates moving on to higher education.
Neither outcome is necessarily better for children with special needs, and this paper delves into some of the reasons for the different results in different districts. But the difference illustrates that specific districts, which might have varying approaches and goals as well as outcomes, might be more appropriate for specific students.
In addition, nearly half of children with special needs applying through open enrollment to transfer into a brick-and-mortar school in a district other than the one they live in are being denied.
These findings, which demonstrate both the variety of outcomes in various districts and inability of special needs students to successfully transfer via the open enrollment process in some places, reinforce the conclusions of an earlier Wisconsin Policy Research Institute research recommending that parents of children with special needs be given more flexibility to choose programs and educational approaches not currently available to them.