Blaming Special Ed — Again

When times get tough, school systems and their enabling reporters blame special education.  Regular readers of JPGB and and Education Next have seen this argument debunked before, but I feel compelled to do it again in response to a sloppy and lazy article in the Wall Street Journal.

The WSJ piece by Barbara Martinez is entitled “Private-School Tuitions Burden DOE.”  The DOE in this case is the Department of Education in New York City, which the article points out “last year spent $116 million on tuition and legal expenses related to special-education students whose parents sued the DOE on the grounds that the public-school options were inadequate. That’s more than double the number of just three years ago, and the costs are expected to continue to rise in coming years.”

As I’ve pointed out before, the trick to writing an article blaming special education is to mention a high cost for educating certain special education students (or even a high-sounding aggregate figure) without putting in perspective how much money that is relative to the entire school budget.  True to form, this article states: “The tuition payouts range between $20,000 and more than $100,000 per child and have been used for schools as far away as Utah.”  Wow, that sounds like a lot of money.  And going all the way to Utah sounds extravagant.

But let’s put this issue in perspective, which even a minimal amount of effort by the reporter could have done.  If private school tuition really is a “burden” as the title asserts, the cost of private-placement should be a significant portion of the New York City school budget.  It isn’t.  If you look at the NYC education budget you see that schools spent a total of $17.9 billion in 2009.  The total cost of private placement is only $116 million, which is about .6% of total spending.  This is close to rounding error for NYC.

To put it further in perspective, the NYC education system spent $151 million last year on pollution remediation to address lead paint, asbestos, and contaminated soil at its properties.  Imagine if there had been a news article entitled “Pollution Clean-Up Burdens DOE.”  People would have dismissed that as ridiculous, noting that the total amount spent on pollution is a very small part of the total budget and could hardly be considered a burden.  What’s more, people would have acknowledged that cleaning up pollution is important and the schools need to do it.

But this article on private tuition for special education “burdens” is even worse because the burden on the district isn’t the total cost, but the cost for private placement in excess of what the district would have spent if they had served these disabled students in traditional public schools.  We know from the article that there were 4,060 students who sought private placement for an aggregate cost of $116 million.  That works out to $28,571 per student.

We also know from the NYC DOE budget that schools spent a total of $17.9 billion for about 1.1 million students, which works out to $16,263 per student.  But wait, NYC spends more on its special education students than on the average student.  If we look at the NYC DOE budget (which any education reporter worth his or her salt could easily do), they identify additional costs associated with special education.  From that we can calculate that NYC spends an average of $24,773 on its special education students.

The “burden” on NYC DOE from paying private school tuition is the difference between the average tuition and legal costs associated with private placement ($28,571) and the average cost for a disabled student in the traditional public schools ($24,773), which works out to $3,798 per student.  An extra $3,798 per privately placed student over 4,060 students constitutes an additional expense of $15.4 million for NYC DOE.  That amounts to less than .09% of the NYC DOE education budget.

Calling this a “burden” on the district is irresponsible and just distracts people from the true and large areas of waste burdening the school system.

15 Responses to Blaming Special Ed — Again

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chan Stroman, Brandon Dutcher. Brandon Dutcher said: Blaming Special Ed — Again […]

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Imagine if there had been a news article entitled “Pollution Clean-Up Burdens DOE.” People would have dismissed that as ridiculous, noting that the total amount spent on pollution is a very small part of the total budget and could hardly be considered a burden.

    Oh, no, quite the contrary. If there had been an article entitled “Pollution Clean-Up Burdens DOE” there would have been a high-kicking chorus line of politicians and bureaucrats lined up all the way from Manhattan to Albany, demanding a big new infusion of federal money – or else the kindergarteners will be using lead-based fingerpaints, the grade schoolers will be planting their class gardens in contaminated soil, and the high schoolers will be served asbestos flakes instead of french fries with their lunches.

  3. They might have added that if we don’t remediate the lead paint, etc… we’ll have more disabled students burdening the school system.

  4. GGW says:

    Good post. Very persuasive.

  5. nyc mom says:

    Thank you so much for this article! My son attends a NYC private special needs school, and we had to sue the DOE. I hope you sent it to the author or at least a letter to the editor! Thanks!

  6. Thanks, GGW and NYC Mom!

    I did send this to the reporter and posted it as a comment on the article on the web site.

  7. Greg Forster says:

    They might have added that if we don’t remediate the lead paint, etc… we’ll have more disabled students burdening the school system.

    Cut to interior shot of a dark cell. Pan downward and across the wall where countless words and phrases have been scrawled wildly and connected by various lines. Camera rests on a disheveled Richard Rothstein, who stares bug-eyed at the wall, draws one last line on the wall with his pen, and then shouts, “IT’S ALL CONNECTED!”

  8. If parents successfully sue to prove their child’s needs can’t be met by the district schools, isn’t it likely the child has above-average challenges requiring above-average spending? In other words, we don’t know if there’s any extra cost to private placement.

  9. […] Don’t blame special ed, responds Jay P. Greene. That $116 million is more of a “rounding error” than a burden. It amounts to about .6% of total spending. […]

  10. This is an excellent point, Joanne. I should have emphasized that $15.4 million is the upper-bound estimate of cost under the strict assumption that privately placed students, on average, would be no more expensive to serve than the average disabled student who remains in public schools. But you are right that we have reason to expect that privately placed students often receive such a placement because they have more severe (and more expensive) disabilities.

    I also make this point in the Ed Next article linked in the post.

  11. laura says:

    Great post, Jay.

  12. Really interesting post, Jay (though I admit I’m worried — have I made this kind of mistake of not providing context when I quote numbers in my own articles?) Thanks for worrying me; it’ll keep me on my toes. 🙂

  13. joycem says:

    Joanne and Jay, before you get too excited about the degree of disability, one factor (from someone with boots on the ground) is that misinformed administrators often look at the cost of in-district programs and see it as way too high, when in reality keeping these students in-district instead of sending them out for private placement frequently costs less–and sets the groundwork for an easier transition back into the general education population. Often it isn’t the degree of disability which can be a factor, but simply the lack of in-district facilities. When the bean counters look at the cost of an in-district program, they only look at the adult/student ratio, not the cost of the in-district program vis-a-vis the cost of an outside placement. Often, the least restrictive environment *is* an in-district program–which may not exist.

    (FYI, I’m also posting this over at Joanne’s blog)

  14. Great post. Your cucumber-cool deconstruction of the Wall Street Journal article is a great help because it is compelling and dispassionate, in a contrast to my own biased reaction to writers who slam public and special education, institutions that mean a great deal to me as a teacher of disabled students and father of an autistic boy. Especially grating is Best’s flippant assertion that there’s “not an insignificant number of cases with students whose parents would never have sent their kids to public school.” On what does he base that? Anyway, thanks for your voice and may cooler heads prevail…

  15. […] for their incapacities and ignored for their capacities. I liked this post from Jay P. Greene ( who spoke about a Wall Street Journal author who did not do her research. She commented about […]

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