All children are special, but a growing number worldwide need “special education” supplementation for their studies. They have a variety of difficulties, including learning disabilities such as dyslexia; communication disorders, emotional and behavioral disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder); physical disabilities including cerebral palsy, osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), muscular dystrophy, spina bifida (the neural tube doesn’t close down the spine), and Friedreich’s ataxia (a genetic neurodegenerative movement disorder); and developmental disabilities such as autistic spectrum disorder and intellectual disabilities.
The number of special education pupils has grown in Israel by leaps and bounds. It has been one of the fastest-growing components within the Education Ministry’s budget in recent years. While this budget grew in real terms by 94% between 2005 and 2019, the special education budget increased by 267%. The share of the special education budget within the total Ministry of Education budget grew from 7% to 13%, while the percentage of students with special needs grew from 6.5% to 11%.
In Israel, the number of such pupils grew by more than 50% between 2010 and 2018, and their share out of all students increased from 8.3% to 10.4%.
By comparison, the number of special education pupils in the US grew during that period by only seven percent between 2010 and 2018, and their share out of the total number of pupils dropped from 13.7% to 13.2%.
This is due not so much to an increase in the birth of such children in Israel but to much greater awareness and more frequent diagnosis of such disabilities.
Now a new study by the independent, non-political Taub Center for Social Policy in Israel has taken an in-depth look at what is being done with this money and made recommendations on how to improve the pupils’ learning and better spend the government’s allocations.
The research, conducted by Nachum Blass, principal researcher and Chair of the Taub Center’s education policy program, looks at the developments in the special education budget and the division of the budget among the various special education institutional settings.
He found that 17 years ago, the number of special-needs pupils totaled 111,515; two years ago, it had grown to 248,488. Two-fifths of special education pupils are not integrated into regular schools, and they benefit from about 60% of the special education budget. Pupils with similar disabilities and similar levels of functioning are budgeted differently, depending on the educational setting they are in.
The committee headed by former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner recommended reforms to the Special Education Law, but sadly, these have yet to be adopted.
Blass, who was assistant director and director of the Office of the Chief Scientist in the Education Ministry, describes in his study the factors that determine the size of the special education budget and suggests ways to change the budgeting principles currently in use with the goal of slowing the growth of the budget and allocating it in a more equitable and just manner.
He found that pupils with similar disabilities and similar levels of functioning are budgeted differently, depending on the educational institutional setting they are in. Pupils are allocated a larger budget if they attend a special education school or are in a special-education class than in a regular education framework. This, he writes, is justified when pupils have different needs but not when they have the same disability and the same level of functioning.
About three-fifths of the special-education budget is allocated to pupils in separate settings, with the rest going to pupils who are integrated into regular schools. The result is that a pupil with special needs who attends a separate setting is allocated 2.5 times more budget than one who attends a regular educational institutional setting.
A lack of professional and reliable tools for diagnosing the level of functioning among special-needs pupils said Blass, who believes that the Israeli education system does not currently possess a reliable tool for classifying those with each type of disability according to their level of functioning.
Transportation costs are a significant component in the special education budget, particularly transportation to and from special education schools that are more distant from the children’s neighborhoods.
The Dorner Committee made three main recommendations – the right of parents with a special needs child to choose their child’s type of educational institutional setting; budgeting according to the level of functioning rather than only according to the type of disability; and linking the budget to the child rather than the educational setting — is desirable from an educational and social perspective and will lead to significant budget savings. Blass insists that these recommendations should be implemented decisively and to the letter to achieve the educational and social goals underlying them and the ministry’s declared objectives.
Taub Center president Prof. Avi Weiss commented that “it appears that, apart from the significant increase in the number of pupils with special needs for one reason or another, there has also been overuse of expensive educational settings – separate schools and classes – rather than integrating them in regular classes. To improve the efficiency of the special education system in particular and the education system in general, it is important to establish more transparent and egalitarian criteria and to implement them with determination and consistency.”