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Bracing for a Tidal Wave of Unnecessary Special Education Referrals

Students pegged for evaluation may be struggling due to disrupted learning or show trauma-related behaviors — and may not have disabilities at all

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We have devoted our careers to ensuring students with disabilities can access the same opportunities as their non-disabled peers. The specially designed instruction and related services essential to providing a “free appropriate public education” are critical to the success of students with disabilities. However, amid disturbing data emerging about disruptions to student learning associated with COVID-19, we are concerned that a tidal wave of referrals for special education services (potentially one out of every three or four children) will flood the nation’s schools.

High rates of absenteeism, lagging academic gains, a student mental health crisis, a decrease in interventions provided to children ages 0-3 and a shortage of special ed teachers and staffers all raise fears that districts are unprepared to respond. These concerns are based on ominous anecdotes we have heard in the course of our work with school leaders and educators in locations such as New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. These colleagues report increasing referrals for evaluation due to behavioral challenges exacerbated by the trauma associated with the pandemic. At the same time, while many students undoubtedly require extra support, many children identified for referrals may not have a disability at all, but rather are struggling due to disruptions to their learning.

Districts must ensure that a lack of appropriate instruction in reading and math and limited English proficiency are not determinant factors in referring children for special education. This is especially important under the “Specific Learning Disability” category. This means states and districts must address instructional loss for all students while reserving highly specialized instruction, services and accommodations for students with documented disabilities.

Issuing blanket referrals for large numbers of children would not only create stress and anxiety for families as they navigate a complex and often contentious process, but also impose onerous procedural requirements on schools and districts for conducting timely evaluations, developing individualized education programs and providing robust specialized instruction. It would also have a tremendous impact on school staffing, funding and academic performance.

While most students with disabilities spend most of their day in general education classrooms, the specialized supports and services they need require specially trained teachers and related providers. Identifying more students as eligible for special education would impose even more significant staffing challenges on schools already struggling to recruit and retain specialists.

If districts were able to find and hire those specialists, their costs would skyrocket. Providing special education and related services can double the cost of teaching a student. Historically, around 12.5% of students qualify for special ed, and the additional costs above the standard per-pupil expenditure account for roughly 14% of the average district budget. Increasing the proportion of students in special education to even 25% could mean 28% of a district’s budget allocated to those additional expenditures. 

While the federal Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) can provide some assistance, states and districts will likely face a fiscal cliff when those dollars sunset. Very little ESSER or K-12 public recovery funding has gone to support students with disabilities, and there is scant evidence that districts are using other kinds of relief dollars for special education. If there is indeed a flood of special ed referrals, school budgets will be strained even more than they already are, and there will be insufficient funding to support the critical services that underpin students’ individualized educational programs. This scenario would most directly impact children who require significant support.

Lastly, special education eligibility is typically coupled with a distressing and steep drop in expectations and outcomes, particularly for Black, Indigenous and other students of color who are disproportionately disciplined. Absent intentional actions to minimize overidentification, the pandemic might compound poor outcomes for historically marginalized students.

While these predictions are alarming, school leaders and policymakers can prevent this scenario from unfolding. To stem the tide of referrals, we recommend:

  • Allocate ESSER stimulus dollars with a laser focus on robust student assessments;
  • Ensure that evaluations refer children for special education services only when there is an actual disability, and not when the primary cause of their learning challenges are a lack of instruction or English language proficiency.
  • Ensure that all ESSER dollars used for instruction, personnel training or direct student services go only toward practices like Universal Design for Learning and Multi-Tiered System of Supports. These evidence-based practices facilitate access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities (see, for example, the What Works Clearinghouse);
  • Double down on early-childhood interventions and expand the time frame beyond the three years when they are typically offered, while recognizing that evaluations can occur at any time. Ideally, elementary schools would temporarily expand their team of early interventionists to provide more intensive and focused support to students identified as being behind in reading and mathematics, and when inappropriate school behavior is first recognized; 
  • Expand and enhance training for all educators in inclusive and differentiated practices like Universal Design for Learning, whose evidence-based and flexible approaches enable educators to anticipate learner variability in the general education classroom;
  • Implement robust Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and other evidence-based programs designed to address childhood traumas and underlying causes of inappropriate school behaviors, train staff to effectively reduce and eliminate exclusionary discipline practices, and continuously monitor outcomes for trends that indicate a breakdown of the effectiveness of interventions — especially disproportionate representation of Black boys;
  • Invest in efforts to grow the special education workforce

In the best interest of schools and families, we implore states, districts and schools to take action by using ESSER dollars strategically to make decisive plans to avoid skyrocketing referrals for special education and avert a pending crisis.

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