The Costs of Inclusive and Special Education
Updated: May 11
The bottom line: Inclusive education is cheaper than separate special education.
One of the reasonable and common concerns when welcoming neurodiverse students into the general classroom is cost: if historically the norm has been to segregate students with higher support needs into self-contained classrooms or wholly separate schools, that probably means special education is the cheapest and most viable option, right? Including all children in the same classroom must surely be more expensive.
Thankfully for neurodiverse people and their allies, inclusion is just as much an economic choice as it is a moral one. Although inclusion may appear costly because of higher expenses upfront (for example, training, infrastructural adaptation, learning material and assistive technology), it is generally accepted to be cheaper than the alternative of excluding students and placing them in separate classes. In the United States, research has indicated that inclusion is 11% (Odom et al., 2001) or 13.5% (Halvorsen et al., 1996) cheaper than special education for total expenses at the federal, state, and district levels. For the school district only, inclusive practices may be as high as 37% (Odom et al., 2001) or 41% (Salisbury & Chambers, 1994) cheaper. Research internationally has found similar evidence. In Bangladesh, reductions in wage earnings due to exclusive educational practices were estimated to cost the country $54 million per year, and inclusive education was estimated to recoup 20% (World Bank, 2008). A similar figure of 20% was found in Nepal (Lamichhane, 2013). In China, each additional year of education for people with disabilities led to a wage increase of 6.4% (Liao & Zhao, 2013).
Conceptually, there are a few reasons that inclusion is cheaper. Having parallel systems of education requires funding redundant non-instructional costs like transportation and administration (Sibanda, 2018). Ultimately, the dynamics of disability’s relationship to education, employment, productivity, poverty, incarceration, and health have far-reaching implications. The education of people with disabilities may lead to increased employment and productivity and lower costs of welfare programs, healthcare, police and prison systems. (Banks & Polack, 2015; UNICEF, 2013). The question then isn’t if we should include neurodiverse students in the classroom; inclusion is morally and financially justifiable. The question is how we reimagine and recast inclusion from the exception to the standard in education.
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Banks, L.M., & Polack, S. (2015). The economic costs of exclusion and gains of inclusion of people with disabilities: Evidence from low and middle income countries. London, CBM. Retrieved from https://www.cbm.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Publications/Costs-of-Exclusion-and-Gains-of-Inclusion-Report.pdf
Halvorsen, A.T., Neary, T., Hunt, P., & Piuma, C. (1996). A cost-benefit comparison of inclusive and integrated classes in one california district. Unpublished manuscript. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED393249.pdf
Liao, J., & Zhao, J. (2013). Rate of returns to education of persons with disabilities in rural China. A paper presented at the international conference on applied social science research. https://dx.doi.org/10.2991/icassr.2013.60
Lamichhane, K (2013). Disability and barriers to education: Evidence from Nepal. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 15(4), 311-324. https://doi.org/10.1080/15017419.2012.703969
Odom, S.L., Parrish, T.B., & Hikido, C. (2001). The costs of inclusive and traditional special education preschool services. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 14(1), 33-41. Retrieved from http://case.readyhosting.com/documents/JSEL/JSEL_14.1.pdf#page=35
Salisbury, C., & Chambers, A. (1994). Instructional costs of inclusive schooling. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 19(3), 215–222. https://doi.org/10.1177/154079699401900309
Sibanda, P. (2018). The dynamics of the cost and funding of inclusive education in developing countries. Scientific Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences, 7(9), 816-822. https://doi.org/10.14196/sjpas.v7i9.2555
World Bank (2008). Project appraisal document on a proposed credit to the people’s Republic of Bangladesh for disability and children-at-risk project. Washington, World Bank.
UNICEF (2013). The state of the world's children 2013: Children with disabilities. New York: 2013. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/sowc2013/files/SWCR2013_ENG_Lo_res_24_Apr_2013.pdf