Shortly after our older daughter enrolled in a new public school for second grade, my wife and I were summoned to meet with her classroom teacher and a special education teacher.
A screening test that had been administered to the entire class determined that our daughter had a learning disability, the special education teacher told us. She urged us to authorize our daughter’s removal from the classroom for about one hour at a time several times per week so her disability could be corrected.
My wife and I were stunned. We thought we knew our child very well, and there had never been any hint of a problem. She was highly verbal. She was highly social. She was highly artistic. She had good spatial perception. What could be wrong?
“How did you test them?” I asked the special education teacher. She explained that she had called out two- and three-digit numbers, numbers like “sixty-three” and “one hundred eighteen,” and asked the children to write down the numbers as she said them. Our daughter couldn’t do it.
My wife and I glanced at each other, each knowing what the other was thinking, and I turned to the classroom teacher. She had sat mutely through this presentation, hands folded in her lap. “Have you taught the children those numbers?” I asked. “No,” she replied quietly. I asked if she had observed any difficulty on our daughter’s part in handling the material they had covered in class. Again, she said no.
I then explained that our daughter had previously attended the Early Childhood Center at Sarah Lawrence College. The program, which serves students between the ages of 2 and 6, including those in first grade, is based on the belief that young children learn best through their own self-directed play. Explicit instruction is de-emphasized. Reading is not overtly taught until the first grade, though many students pick it up much earlier through their own explorations. In my daughter’s class, three-digit numbers were not taught at all.
We did not authorize any special education for our child. Later that year, when my daughter was taught to write three-digit numbers, she quickly grasped the meaning of those numbers as well as their symbols. She is now preparing to begin a doctoral program in the fall and was never again diagnosed with a learning disability.
The school could have easily discovered the true source of my daughter’s difficulty with the number-writing test by talking to my daughter, by talking to my wife and me before making a recommendation, or by simply by looking at my daughter’s classroom performance. But this was the early 1990s. Huge sums of money flowed into special education programs around the country, and schools knew that they needed to find pupils to receive that special education or risk losing the funding.
Today, the amount of unspent money sloshing around for special education is lower, but funding remains largely disconnected from actual classroom needs. School budgets overall are stretched to the extreme. Students in many districts are now saddled with fees for even basic programs, or they face cuts that will leave them with only the most minimal options. Special education spending, meanwhile, continues to rise in many places, with dollars lavishly spent on programs that may not even be effective. In the Boston area, for example, special education costs have grown at double the rate of regular school budgets in about half of school districts, despite the fact that the number of students with learning disabilities in Massachusetts has remained stable. As advanced classes and arts programs are gutted and teachers are laid off, special education remains untouched.
At the root of the continued high level of funding for special education is the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law, originally passed in 1990 and significantly modified in 2004, mandates that children with disabilities be provided with a “free, appropriate public education.” The federal government, however, covers only about 17 percent of the additional costs associated with educating special needs students.
Because states and districts are left to provide the majority of funding for federally mandated special education programs, funding levels have come to serve as a proxy for determining if a “free, appropriate public education” is available. Parents who see their schools’ special needs budgets drop can sue, arguing that the cuts violate the protections granted by IDEA. The risk of litigation is a hot button for schools. Hawaii’s Department of Education said last December that it had spent about $1 million on attorney’s fees alone in each of the previous two school years for cases involving students with disabilities.
“A lot of school districts want to avoid even the threat of litigation,” Michael Griffith, a school finance expert with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, told The Associated Press. “The minute you start talking about efficiencies for special education, there is a huge uproar from parents. People look at that as cutting back on things.” Cuts come only when they can be sneaked in.
Parents of students with special needs have every right to fight for a high-quality education for their children. But the focus on spending as an indicator of quality has prevented districts from experimenting with special education approaches that could deliver results that are as good as or better than the status quo, at lower costs.
There is evidence, for example, that keeping special education students in regular classrooms – a less expensive alternative to separate special education classes – actually improves test scores. Studies by the Center for Special Education Finance have found that schools that include special education students with others are better able to close achievement gaps. Thomas B. Parrish, the center’s director, told The AP that educators in almost every district he looked at where special education students had better-than-expected test scores “told about some way that general education and special education work together collaboratively.”
For those students who do need separate instruction, one possible solution lies in consolidated regional programs. Areas, such as the Northeast, that have small school districts must spend a great deal of money equipping every district with special education programs for the benefit of just a handful of special needs students. At the same time, the diverse group of disabled students in any given school district means that special education teachers must be generalists, rather than experts in particular disabilities. Centralized programs could bring together a sufficient number of students with the same disability, such as autism, to make it possible to hire more specialized instructors while also reducing costs.
Yet the fear of litigation stemming from changes means that there is little support for investigating these options. As in the 1990s, schools are on a quest to spend money on special education, even when the more expensive choice isn’t the best choice, and in some cases, even when the more expensive choice is actually harmful to students, as hours of unnecessary disability-focused education likely would have been for my daughter.
Fixing the problems with special education funding could give students with disabilities just as good an education, or better, with more money left over for sports programs, classes in the arts, and field trips for all students. That would be something truly special.