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The Uneven Distribution of Professional Discretion: Parental Monitoring, Fiscal Reform, and Special Education Placement

Mon, August 14, 10:30am to 12:10pm, Palais des congrès de Montréal, Floor: Level 5, 516D


A large body of research shows that parents from more advantaged backgrounds engage in more monitoring of and intervention into organizations like schools on behalf of their children, monitoring that reduces the discretion of professionals in those organizations over certain decisions. Due to difficulties in measuring this parental monitoring on a large enough scale, little research examines the interaction between this monitoring and policy changes that impact the organizations being monitored by parents. The present paper uses fiscal reforms around special education as a case study to investigate the role that parental monitoring may play professionals’ decisions about special education placement. First, I show that despite federal prohibitions on professionals taking cost into account, school professionals have discretion to allocate fewer IEP's (contracts for special education services) in the wake of fiscal retrenchment in the form of a managed-care like financing policy for special education services. Then, focusing on New Jersey, the state with the largest drop in IEP's, I ask: is this drop evenly distributed amongst districts? If not, what role might a district's history of facing higher degrees of parental monitoring and intervention play following fiscal retrenchment? Using unique data gleaned from an Open Records Act request, I find that districts with a history of more intensive parental monitoring of/intervention into special education decision-making experience significantly smaller magnitude drops in placement and a lower probability of any drop in placement following capitation, a relationship that remains after controlling for fiscal and parental demographic variables correlated with this monitoring.