New York’s special education system has ballooned to cover almost a fifth of public school K-12 students and special education accounts for about a quarter of all K-12 costs, all while producing middling results for students, a new report from the Empire Center reveals.

“New York has created a system that financially rewards school districts for designating students as needing special education services,” Empire Center fellow Ian Kingsbury writes in Perverse Incentives, High Costs and Poor Outcomes: Understanding and Improving Special Education in New York. “That arrangement is failing students and failing taxpayers.”

The state classifies 19.4 percent of its students as needing special education, more than any other state and 40 percent higher than the national average. Students in the state’s special education system meanwhile score below average in national education assessments, and New York parents in 2017-2018 filed more due process complaints about service quality than parents in all other 49 states combined.

At the same time, a backdoor voucher system has emerged for wealthier families in New York City who are unsatisfied with the special education in public schools. Households with the means to hire an attorney and sue can get reimbursed for private school tuition by demonstrating their student is not getting an “appropriate education” in city-run schools. But this approach remains off-limits for families that can’t afford to hire an attorney or pay tuition on a speculative basis.

Kingsbury proposes two legislative solutions: first, lawmakers should fund special education services for local districts on a sliding scale that would more closely match the actual costs instead of the current one-size-fits-all formula. Second, lawmakers should consider creating a means-tested voucher system that would let students with disabilities attend private schools their parents otherwise couldn’t afford.

The Empire Center, based in Albany, is an independent, not-for-profit, non-partisan think tank dedicated to promoting policies that can make New York a better place to live, work and raise a family.


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The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.

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