During the second half of the twentieth century there were two dramatic developments in the field of special education. One was a significant increase in the number of students diagnosed as students with special needs. The second was the increased awareness of the importance and need, both educational and social, to integrate students with special needs into the general education system – when previously it was customary to isolate them in separate education systems.
Among educators, researchers, and public figures in Israel, there is a broad consensus regarding the importance of integrating children with special needs into general education schools. The aspiration to provide every child with the opportunity to realize their potential and exercise their rights has been established in an array of laws and regulations. However, more than a third of all children with special needs in the education system are not integrated into general education schools and study in separate frameworks. Compared to other countries around the world, integration rates in general education schools in Israel are significantly lower, which is an indication that the education system is underperforming in this area.
The Taub Center recently published two studies on special education by Nachum Blass, Principal Researcher and Education Policy Program Chair at the Center. These studies examine the factors that influence the budgeting of special education, and, as a result, the budget for education in general.
Blass’s article, “The Continuing Struggle for Equality in the Funding of Special Education: A Historical Overview,” describes a long and complicated chain of government and administrative decisions, some based on reports by public committees or court decisions, which have influenced the way students with special needs are referred to the various educational settings. According to the study, the recommendations, perceptions, and guiding principles to integrate students with special needs into general educational frameworks – which were outlined to a great extent in the Dorner Commission report published in 2009 – have not yet been implemented.
In order to actualize the educational and social goals that are the bases of the report, the recommendations of the committee must be studied and decisive action must be taken to fully implement them: granting parents the right to choose the educational framework in which their children will learn, budgeting according to the level of functioning and not solely according to disability, and linking the budget to the student and not to the framework in which they study, i.e., establishing that “the budget follows the child.”
Together with considering the parents’ wishes regarding the choice of educational institutional setting, there is a need to improve control over the process of referring special education students to settings that meet their needs. For this, two important conditions must be met. The first is the creation of a uniform, objective, and reliable tool that is acceptable to the Ministry of Education, parents, and experts in the field of special education. The tool would be used to determine the level of functioning, which will enable students with any type of disability to be classified according to their functional ability.
The second condition is the evaluation of all special education students, regardless of the setting in which they are learning, according to their disabilities and level of functioning, and budgeting them accordingly and equally without distinction according to educational setting. If, following the reevaluation of the students, there is a decrease in the number studying in the separate frameworks, it will be necessary to update the budgets of the various frameworks and make the necessary changes in the allocation of manpower.
The special education budget has grown at the fastest rate in recent years when compared to other main areas of the Ministry of Education’s budget. Between 2005 and 2019, the Ministry of Education’s real budget increased by 94%, while the special education budget increased by 267%. The Taub Center study, Special Education Budgeting in Israel, examined the factors that influence the size of the special education budget and its allocation between the various frameworks.
The factor that has the greatest impact on the special education budget is the total number of students in the education system who are defined as “having special needs.” Between 2005 and 2019, the total number of students in Israel’s education system increased by 29%, whereas the number of special education students increased by 122% – from 111,515 students in 2005 to 248,488 students in 2019.
The budget for a student with special needs who attends a special education school or who learns in a separate class within a general education school is higher than the budget for a student with special needs integrated into a general education classroom. Between 2005 and 2019, about 60% of special education students were integrated into general educational institutional settings and approximately 40% studied in separate special educational settings. Nevertheless, about 60% of the special education budget is allocated to students in the separate schools, while approximately 40% of the budget is allocated to students integrated into general education schools. The study shows that there is inequality in budgeting; students with similar disabilities and similar levels of functioning are budgeted differently, depending on the educational institutional settings in which they study.
The findings of the study indicate that the composition of the student population in terms of types of disabilities has also changed. Between 2005 and 2020, the population of students with special needs increased by 2.26 times, while the number of students on the autism spectrum and with severe behavioral or emotional disorders increased by 7.63 and 5.62 times, respectively. These disabilities receive especially large budget allocations.
Transportation costs are an important component of the special education budget, especially transportation to special education schools. In the 2019 budget, the transportation section of the entire Ministry of Education stood at NIS 1.29 billion, of which more than 40% was dedicated to transportation of students with special needs. Many special education students do not attend a school close to their homes. The guaranteed eligibility for transportation regardless of distance allows parents more freedom in choosing the educational institutional setting for their children, but this entitlement has a great impact on the budget.
The conclusion that can be drawn from both studies is that, although the education system recognizes the importance of increasing the integration of students with special needs within general education, this is not enough. It is necessary to take decisive action to achieve this goal. This is desirable not only from a moral, social, and educational perspective, but also from an economic perspective, due to the expected savings in transportation, teaching, and construction costs, which may moderate the increase in the special education budget while preserving the children’s rights and the quality of their education.