Some optimism (and caution) on special education funding

Chris Cerf
Chris Cerf & Co. deserve praise for trying something new in a touchy, costly program area.

New Jersey
is trying something new, and promising, to improve the quality of special
education in the state. Education commissioner Chris Cerf recently awarded $1M in grants
to districts that had the highest absolute performance and highest growth for
their special ed students.

The Garden
State's implementation of
performance-based funding has serious strong points. In a program area that
focuses largely on inputs (i.e., the level of funding and staff dedicated to
special ed students), these grants shift the spotlight to quality. The
initiative also shows how much good a robust data system can do.

The long-term incentives performance-based funding could
provide in this area are a little more worrying, however. A variety of children
are lumped under the "special education" umbrella, and measuring
performance and growth looks very different in each locale depending on the mix
of conditions a district's students face. Will school systems with a high
proportion of severely disabled students be left behind, even if they're
achieving modest gains in a cost-effective way? What about the dangers of
over-identifying high-achieving (or high-growth-potential) students to improve
the numbers?

The state-level team in New Jersey deserves praise for trying something
new in a touchy, costly program area. Stressing quality over increased inputs
in the form of money, aides, and other resources is sorely needed in special
education. The crucial next step for Cerf & Co. is to keep refining this
policy to find the right set of incentives—and keep districts on their toes so
that special education students get the best possible instruction.

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