Evidence on the Long-Run Benefits of Special Education

April 27, 2022

Key Takeaway: 

As most education programs focus on short-run learning outcomes, special education (SE) helps prepare students for adult life goals. A study on the long-run benefits of SE examines sudden declines in educational attainment after a debated policy change in Texas that pressured school districts to reduce SE caseloads. Over 10 years of exposure to the controversial policy, drawbacks, largely experienced by less-advantaged youth, prove how SE programs significantly alter students’ learning environments, influence adult life success, and suggest later life labor market outcomes. —Adrian Pasos

Special Education Spending

The lack of evidence on the long-run trajectories of SE programs and placements, along with inconsistencies in its selection criteria, made it difficult to measure the effectiveness of SE spending. This, however, did not inhibit the growing rate of SE participants in the U.S., currently at an annual cost of $40 billion.1 Despite the ambiguity of its benefits, SE increased by 40 percent between 1975 and 2018. 

In 2005, the state of Texas introduced a major policy change that restricted school districts to an 8.5 percent ‘cap’ in SE enrollments. Although it was eventually reversed for violating federal disability law,2 it was responsible for a massive statewide decline in educational attainment rates. 

Special Education Access and Removal Effects

Research conducted by Ballis and Heath (2021) exploited this unique policy change to extract statistical data that produced evidence of the long-run success of SE programs. “Credibly estimating the long-run impacts of SE programs is difficult due to data limitations and the empirical challenges. The few studies that have examined SE placement have largely focused on short-run outcomes.”

On the other hand, their research design identifies the direct impacts of SE programs by using strategies that analyze differences in SE access and removal in varying exposures to the policy. Results show the negative effects of SE removal in a high-impact sample group—students whose disabilities are less severe. This explains the sharp decline in educational attainment, as evidenced by a 51.9% drop in high school completion and a 37.9% drop in college enrollment, which are strong predictors of later life labor market outcomes. 

Data also presented advantages of SE placements on general education (GE), showing how its removal can alter the way teachers allocate resources, thereby also negatively affecting GE students. A comparative study supports that additional educational resources to students with mild disabilities offer returns that are significantly larger than reducing classroom sizes or increasing school spending, but similar to highly effective interventions.3,4,5

Adulthood Outcomes

To establish its long standing impact, Ballis and Heath leveraged administrative data that followed public school students into adulthood, linking student-level school records to post-secondary schooling.  As explained by Ballis and Heath, “our results suggest large returns to investing in specialized educational support when overall improvements in school quality are not possible.” 

While Ballis and Heath have shown “robust evidence on the impacts of SE placement on educational attainment decisions, the limited time after the policy does not yet allow us to fully follow students into the labor market. Understanding the longer-run labor market effects will be the focus of future research.”

Summarized Article:

Ballis, B. & Heath, K. (2021). The Long-Run Impacts of Special Education. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 13(4): 72-111.

Summary by: Adrian Pasos — Adrian believes that the MARIO Framework embraces the individual learner, who plays a dynamic role in the process of teaching and learning, as well as the educator who can turn the unfamiliar into creative learning opportunities.

Academic researchers Katelyn Heath and Briana Ballis participated in the final version of this summary.

Additional References:

  1. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). 2015. “The Condition of Education at a Glance.” NCES. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2015/2015144.pdf.
  2. US Department of Education. 2018. “U.S. Department of Education Issues Findings in Texas Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Monitoring.” US Department of Education Press Release, January 11. https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-issues-findings-texas-individuals-disabilities-education-act-monitoring.
  3. Dynarski, Susan, Joshua Hyman, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach. 2013. “Experimental Evidence on the Effect of Childhood Investments on Postsecondary Attainment and Degree Completion.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 32 (4): 692–717.
  4. Jackson, C. Kirabo, Rucker C. Johnson, and Claudia Persico. 2015. “The Effects of School Spending on Educational and Economic Outcomes: Evidence from School Finance Reforms.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 131 (1): 157–218.
  5. Levin, Henry M., Clive Belfield, Peter Muennig, and Cecilia Rouse. 2007. “The Public Returns to Public Educational Investments in African-American Males.” Economics of Education Review 26 (6): 699–708.

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