A Pragmatic Approach to Funding Special Education

February 6, 2017

This article was originally published by James Stewart on The Huffington Post on February 6, 2017

Education, particularly as it relates to children with disabilities, is arguably a hotter topic than ever before. Just last month, it was a subject of intense discussion at both the Senate hearing for the proposed Secretary of Education and in a case brought before the Supreme Court. Although these discussions are often heated, the increased traction around the topic is a good thing. Regardless of one’s stance, there should be consensus on the overarching objective: providing all children in our country with an education that prepares them to be productive members of our citizenry.

Certainly, it’s more complicated for some children, as the Supreme Court case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, demonstrates. Some advocates have referred to this case as the most significant special-education issue to reach the high court in three decades. At the root of the argument is the level of education public schools are required to provide students with disabilities. Existing legislation defines this requirement as “free appropriate public education” (FAPE). But, what does that really mean? There are those who interpret it as “some” education — often understood as the bare minimum — while others believe it should be defined as providing “meaningful,” substantial benefit.

While, on the surface, this case may seem to be about a “blizzard of words,” as Justice Alito described it, the argument could rightly be defined in far a more pragmatic way: cost and benefit. If we look at the challenge of educating children with disabilities in terms of the best return on investment, early intervention is an important part of the solution.

This pragmatism is not intended to belittle the emotions involved; we are, after all, talking about children. However, focusing on the early years of a child’s education reaps exponential dividends not only in terms of improving outcomes, but also by reducing costs in the long run.

Improving Outcomes

Early childhood experiences shape brain development and create the foundation for education. Studies show that the earlier a child receives services directly pertaining to their disability, the larger the impact and more positive the outcomes. Quality early intervention can radically change a child’s trajectory, improving their health and cognitive development.

To obtain the best outcomes, a plan must be in place as soon as a child is diagnosed. That plan, then, requires partnership between the family and the school, as well as having the proper infrastructure in place. And this, of course, comes with a cost.

Investing More, Earlier, Reduces Long-term Costs

When the U.S. government issued the FAPE mandate, very limited funding was provided to back it up. It was left to the states to pursue to the best of their ability. Several states have done well, but others are, understandably, struggling. They simply don’t have the resources. How do we solve this problem?

If we consider an investment in a child’s education as we would a business investment, heavier upfront resources can yield significant savings down the line. One example often cited is the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), which uses early intervention on toddlers with Autism. Though this model costs more initially, studies have found that within four years the children who received ESDM required fewer resources than those who did not. In fact, the financial return, on average, was $1,500 per student per month, with long-term returns more than paying for the initial costs.

Furthermore, a child who requires special education and receives intensive investment in the first three years of schooling, may no longer need it as they age into later elementary and beyond. A study of early intervention programs in North Carolina found that access to early intervention programs reduced third grade students’ likelihood of being placed in special education by 39 percent. This reduction provided significant longer-term savings for the state, as special education placement can almost double the cost per student.


Partnerships between the public and private sectors can also provide critical resources for education at lower cost. For example, one school in Jefferson County, West Virginia did not have the resources to support a student with disabilities in their school system. Seeking services outside of the county would have increased cost and placed an undue burden on the student. Instead, the school partnered with my organization, Grafton Integrated Health Network, to provide educational services right in the student’s home district. In turn, the school provided Grafton with a classroom onsite, allowing a special education teacher and aid to support several other students facing similar challenges at the same time. This solution allowed more individuals to be served comfortably, in their own environment, for less money. Importantly, it also required a shorter bus ride for the students, giving them more time in their day.

The Most Important Return on Investment

How we define a free and appropriate education for children with disabilities is a conversation that will continue to pick up speed. But without the necessary resources to back it up, defining the law is only one part of the discussion; it is far from a solution. Investment in early interventions, coupled with innovative partnerships, must all be considered if we are to turn a definition into a reality. We must efficiently mobilize resources so that we can provide all students, regardless of ability, access to an education that helps them to thrive and, ultimately, ensure they are a productive part of their communities.