Limitations of special education cost savings as an argument for early childhood programs

A previous post argues that in some cases, some targeted preschool programs may yield large short-term and medium-term savings in special education costs. For example, these cost savings may start out at 11% after 1 year, and then increase by 11% per year for the next 13 years. The program would eventually cover more than 100% of its costs.

In theory, this finding gives some entity a strong incentive to pay for such a preschool program. Who that entity would be depends on who reaps the cost savings if special education costs are lowered. In many cases, this may be the local school district.

However, I have some serious doubts about pushing special education cost savings as a primary argument for early childhood programs. These doubts fall into three categories.

First, as mentioned in the previous post, there is the issue of whether these special education cost savings will actually be realized and can be demonstrated to be realized. For these special education cost savings to be realized, the criteria for designating students for special education must remain unchanged as the early childhood program expands and lowers its participants’ average needs for special education services.  It would be easy for designation criteria for special education services to change in subtle ways over time, and thus negate any cost savings.

Second, I am concerned that presumed special education cost savings will be used as an excuse for asking preschool services to be paid for by local school districts. If local school districts can over time fully cover their costs for preschool by lower special education costs, why shouldn’t the funds for preschool come out of the K-12 budget?

Third, and this is the most important point, there are many early childhood programs with large economic development benefits that may not have such large special education cost savings. Early childhood programs may in some cases help some children have better life courses and skills as adults without affecting their participation in special education.

If special education cost savings are a primary motivation for early childhood programs, then this distorts the design of early childhood programs towards programs that will reap such savings.  The design of early childhood programs will be distorted away from programs that may have larger effects on adult skills.

If we want short-term benefits from early childhood programs, effects on parental in-migration and property values may be a more reliable guide. (See my previous blog posts on such effects.) These effects reflect parental valuation of the long-term earnings benefits of early childhood programs for their child participants. These long-term earnings benefits are closer to an ultimate goal of early childhood programs. Special education cost savings are a narrower and more partial goal that can distort program design if over-emphasized.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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