Some optimism (and caution) on special education funding
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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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Chris Tessone was a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Director of Finance of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He has strong interests in governance and education finance, especially teacher compensation and school facilities finance.
May 16, 2013