The recent report on special education in Massachusetts, which raises questions about the over-identification of children from low-income families, has us thinking about the well-documented reductions in referrals to special education for low-income children who attended high-quality early education programs. For example, longitudinal evidence from the Chicago Child-Parent Centers preschool program has shown program participants were 40% less likely to be placed in special education. Similar effects have been found in the Abecedarian and Perry Preschool interventions, the subjects of the other two major longitudinal studies of high-quality early education.
Economist Timothy Bartik has explored the question of cost savings from this reduction on his Investing in Kids blog. He has estimated the fiscal impact of providing universal pre-kindergarten.
“The additional annual costs per student from special education assignments average nationally over $10,000. These extra annual costs potentially accrue over 13 years (from kindergarten to 12th grade), so the total cost of a special education assignment can be quite high,” Bartik writes.
“The simulation shows that as of 13 years after the program is begun, the special education cost savings reach a permanent level that covers 48% of the pre-K program’s annual costs. These cost savings increase fairly uniformly from program initiation, so that the cost savings are 4% after one year, 8% after two years, etc.”
The cost savings would be greater in a targeted program. “Special education cost savings will be higher if the early childhood program’s percentage effects on special education usage are higher,” Bartik writes in a follow-up post. “For example, these special education percentage effects might be higher for targeted pre-k programs compared to universal pre-k programs. The baseline level of special education assignments may be higher for the more disadvantaged children that would be in a targeted pre-k program. Furthermore, pre-k programs may have somewhat greater effects in general for disadvantaged students compared to more advantaged students….
“What does this all mean for policymakers and researchers?” Bartik asks. “I think this points to the need for much more current research on immediate cost savings from reduced special education usage.”