Goldwater Institute Report on Special Education
Susan Notes: Although this section is titled Research that Counts, here's a critique on research that jiggles the numbers. Education needs more of such deconstructions of pseudo-science.
Notice first that we are talking about minor differences here: the "bounty" states grew two percent points while the lump sum states grew one percentage point. There is no data to qualify this: were students under-served in states that did not have an "incentive?" Notice second that the growth in the "bounty" states is almost the same as overall growth: 12.6 versus 12.3 percent. This indicates that most of the Special Education students are in the bounty states. The non-bounty states therefore may not have sufficient Special Education students to make additional funding (i.e. "bounty") significant.
In addition, states shifted from non-bounty to bounty programs during the period referenced and it is possible they had these marginal differences before the lump sum states switched but the report does not consider that. However, the reality is that the bulk of the money goes to the 11.5% in both groups of states, the "bounty" states pay only marginally more (1.1%) and we have no data on the demographic characteristics of the states in either case. What we actually have is a minor variation that allowed flights of fancy by researchers unencumbered by logic or data.
The Goldwater Institute report cites a minor difference in the averages of two groups of states that were not matched demographically or otherwise compared so that the differences represent any meaning. They then speculated about this unexplained difference and claimed ex nihilo that it occurred because of a funding method, but the funding amount difference was from 1991-92 to 2000-2001 while the change in funding method in the states occurred at various times subsequent to 1997 (page 11) and therefore could have occurred before the switch. An ex nihilo concoction regarding an unexplained difference is then used to derive a non sequiteur estimate. There was absolutely no data in this report about mislabeling of students and the National Academy of Sciences indicated it is a myth.
Then in the next paragraph of their conclusion the Goldwater Institute lauds the corruption riddled McKay voucher system in Florida, but they had no data about it in the report, and they state "it has proven to be at least revenue-neutral and could save Arizona money." To my knowledge it hasn't proven anything but you could speculate that it "could" do anything if you don't require any logic or supporting data. This statement does not belong in their report, let alone in their conclusion.
The purported logic behind their report is that low-income students typically have higher Special Education needs than more affluent students but that minority students in mostly minority districts show fewer referrals than minority students in districts with higher proportions of Whites, therefore indicating discrimination. The only data in their report supporting their conclusion shows that a greater proportion of Hispanic students in Arizona receive Special Education services in districts where they are a smaller minority. Their data shows that this is not true for African-Americans nor White students although they claim it is true for African-Americans.
Looking at their Figure 1: Disability Rates by Ethnic Group in Arizona Schools, their interpretation is clearly faulty. You actually have three primary trend lines. First, the white trend line tends to follow the expected model: higher Special Education referrals in low percentage White (and presumably low income but it is important to note that these charts do not show affluence) districts but declining in more presumably affluent districts.
Clearly the trend-line for African-American students has three of the four data points following the same trend as the White data. Only the first data point for African-Americans is clearly an anomaly that needs to be explained. However, this was a data point for African-American students in schools where less than 26% of the students are White. Those non-White districts likely are numerous Indian reservation and Mexican-border schools where less than 26% of the students are White, but those would have very few African-American students. There are not very many African-American students in Arizona proportionally and most live in inner-city urban areas. Thus even fewer live in districts where Whites are also a minority. These may be very small anomalous districts and the anomalous data-point can be dismissed as irrelevant.
The Hispanic line is clearly the only one that runs the way the Goldwater Institute alleges: higher percentage White populations with higher percentage Hispanic Special Education referrals. But there are three logical explanations for this pattern.
First, Hispanics in Arizona tend to have a large component of illegal aliens. They can attend public schools but they are not eligible for indigent health care (AHCCCS, etc.). As a consequence, IF the greater percentage White also means greater affluence THEN it is highly likely that greater affluence means greater affordability of health care and thus diagnostic services so you would expect greater numbers of Special Education referrals. When they attend schools with fewer White students they may be small rural schools less likely to have healthcare experts available for diagnostics.
Second, schools that have small percentages of White students would tend to be Reservation districts and districts along the border with Mexico. Both of these have language and cultural differences that might reflect differences in approaches to Special Education. In addition, those districts tend to lack sophisticated services of all kinds. Those districts are distinctly different from other districts because they serve unique populations in unique circumstances. For example, in the Navajo Nation the population is widely dispersed and medical care is often provided by traditional Medicine Men. As a consequence, you would expect Special Education referrals to be lower in those districts.
Third, you have to be very careful to note that the Goldwater Institute chart refers to the percentage of districts and not the percentage of students. Approximately 70% of the students attend 10% of the districts in Arizona. As a consequence, the many rural districts with small numbers of students are a larger percentage of districts than the few urban districts such as Tucson, Mesa, Deer Valley, Paradise Valley and Peoria which have enormous numbers of kids and probably most of Arizona's Hispanics in absolute numbers. Consequently, with many small districts the percentages can be distorted very easily by small numbers. So quoting numbers about districts may have little or nothing to do with numbers about students. I'm not sure their chart has anything of relevance to the topic.
The Goldwater Institute report becomes a little far-fetched at the end. The idea that providing additional funding to cover the additional costs of Special Education is a "bounty" is merely alleged and no data is provided. In reality, the cost of the average Special Education student would pay for TWO regular education students and the federal funding is supposed to be 40% but they actually only contribute a fraction of that. As a consequence, each student put into Special Education requires reducing funding available for regular education.
In affluent districts the percentage of students in Special Education is lower and their funding is typically higher, therefore they can afford to subsidize Special Education. Conversely, in low-income districts the number of students actually needing Special Education exceeds the ability of the districts to subsidize them. The idea that there is a "bounty" available for each Special Education student is absurd. The increase in revenue does not offset the increase in costs.
The Goldwater Institute report therefore falsely interprets the data that it displays in a meaningless chart and illogically references a speculative report based on insignificant marginal data that produces little or no explanatory variables to make flights of fancy from an ex nihilo concoction regarding an unexplained difference used to derive a non sequiteur estimate that a voucher program in another state provides better results than their erroneous interpretation of Arizona's "bounty" system for Special Education. In short, it's a hoax.
Michael T. Martin is Research Analyst at
Arizona School Boards Association
Michael T. Martin
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