Portfolio Districts And Students With Special Needs

Written by: Jason Burns

Primary Source: Green & Write, February 4, 2016

Note: It has been speculated that Detroit Public Schools may transition to a portfolio management school district model. What is a portfolio management district and what does the research say about the effectiveness of this type of model? Check out Green & Write all week for new posts on what we know and what we can learn from the portfolio management model.

By Jason Burns

Portfolio Management Models (PMMs) can significantly expand the number of educational options available to students. Traditionally, the school attended by most students is determined by their residence, with each school having an assigned “catchment area.” On the other hand, PMMs (at least in theory) eschew home districts and schools, instead offering families a choice over which school should educate their child. While PMMs theoretically allow for better matches to be made between students and schools students with special needs have faced significant obstacles in this arrangement.

Serving Students With Special Needs

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Students with special needs have a particular status under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). According to IDEA, students who have special cognitive, social, or behavioral educational needs are entitled to special services that are outlined in their Individualized Education Program (IEP). IEPs are developed with input from parents, educators, and special education specialists. Once an IEP is written, schools are legally obligated to provide the services it specifies.

Providing supplemental services to students with special needs means that it costs more to educate these students. On average, the cost of providing an education to students with special needs is nearly twice the cost of educating regular education students. This creates an issue of how to pay for these increased costs. Federal funding for IDEA has never exceeded 18.5% of the expected cost of providing special services, meaning that these additional costs are borne by state and local agencies.

Special Education Services In A Portfolio Model

In a traditional school governance model, responsibility for developing and funding an IEP falls initially to a student’s home school/district. Under a PMM, however, this process is not so straightforward. In the absence of a default, or “home” school, the responsibility for developing an IEP and providing the necessary supports would fall on the school to which a student is admitted. While this distinction seems trivial, it can have a significant impact on how students with special needs are served.

Based on the experiences of students and parents in New Orleans, the nation’s largest and most advanced portfolio system, there are three main issues with PMM special education provision: the possibility for perverse incentives, lack of scale economics, and inconsistency in service.

As mentioned above, local education agencies must absorb a portion of the costs associated with the education of special needs students. Because students must be admitted to schools in a portfolio system, schools have an incentive to prevent these students from enrolling. A report by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) on New Orleans’ portfolio system highlights several stories of school officials attempting to talk parents out of applying to their school. As a result, charters in New Orleans have served a significantly smaller number of students with special needs than did schools operated by the recovery school district, which was created by the Louisiana legislature in 2003 and took over 80% of New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina.

Scale economies refers to cost savings that are realized through the provision of goods and services in larger quantities. In a traditional school system, economies of scale are achieved by coordinating services like special education across a number of schools. However, according to a 2013 report from the Cowen Institute, a research organization at Tulane University that studies the reforms in New Orleans, the inability to in a PMM means that the cost of educating students with special needs may be higher in a portfolio system. This can have a deleterious effect on the capacity of schools to serve their students.

Also, the autonomy that schools are granted under a portfolio model can result in inconsistent service. This can be especially problematic for students and families who move between schools as their new schools may lack adequate staff or programs to meet students’ IEPs. Needless to say, this can compound the challenges faced by students with special needs and their families. (An example of one family’s experience is described in a 2015 EdWeek article).

These issues became so severe that in 2010 the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit in 2010 against the Louisiana Department of Education, Orleans Parish School Board, and the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on behalf of all New Orleans students with disabilities. The suit alleged that these entities violated students’ constitutional rights by not providing an appropriate education to them.

Design Matters

The issues highlighted in the previous section do not mean that the portfolio model is fundamentally incapable of serving students with special needs. Rather, they underscore the importance of the rules that structure how the system operates and affects student outcomes. Perverse incentives, the lack of scale economies, and inconsistency are all significant obstacles, but they can be overcome by thoughtful attention equitable system design. And over the past few years, New Orleans has made progress in these areas and now receives high marks from the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

If Detroit indeed moves to a PMM, policymakers would be wise to consider how their choices may impact special needs students. Funding systems shape the incentives that schools have in deciding whether to welcome students or turn them away. Finally, regulations may be necessary to guarantee that students’ needs can be met by the schools they wish to attend. By learning from New Orleans’ example, Detroit may be better equipped to start off on the right foot.

Contact Jason: burnsja6@msu.edu

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Jason Burns
Jason Burns is a second-year doctoral student in Educational Policy. His research interests include the application of theories from economics, behavioral economics, and psychology to understand how teachers, students, and administrators use information to make decisions. Before coming to MSU, Jason taught high school social studies, wrote curriculum, and developed assessments for Howard County Public Schools in suburban Maryland. Jason holds a bachelor’s degree from Kent State University and a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University.