Article Published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
As Federal policymakers examine special education programs this summer, the most important question they will ask is whether special ed actually helps the students who depend on it. Recently, when National Research Council scholars were asked, “Is placement in special education a benefit or a risk?” the fact they were unable to provide an answer should offer little comfort to parents, policymakers or educators.
Today, 12 percent of U.S. schoolchildren are enrolled in special education, a vast increase from just a decade ago. Such dramatic growth is certainly a leading factor, but not the only factor, in a not-so-coincidental, explosive rise in special education costs. One recent report found that total education spending for that 12 percent of students represents nearly 22 percent of all elementary and secondary spending.
Nonetheless, as Congress begins its reauthorization of special education in the coming months, reformers are opposed by powerful forces who would prefer to see no big changes, but simply to raise funding levels.
Secretary of Education Rod Paige has suggested that approximately one-half of special education students are placed there in error because “our system fails to teach many children fundamental skills like reading and then inappropriately identifies some of them as having disabilities.” Growing evidence shows just how harmful it can be for students to be placed in special education who do not really belong there. Even worse, when so many children are affected, precious resources and services are diverted away from those truly disabled students who need them most.
Many students are already falling behind when they are first placed in special education. Whether they are truly disabled or placed there because their schools have simply failed to teach them to read, the sad truth is that most of them never catch up. Nationwide, only 1 in 4 special education students exit these programs with high school diplomas, causing enormous difficulties as they make the transition to adult life. Among secondary school students with disabilities, 75 percent of African-American students, as compared to 47 percent of white students, are unemployed two years out of school.
Special ed needs to focus on the academic achievement of its students. Increased accountability was the centerpiece of last year’s No Child Left Behind Act, and would also be a powerful tool for reforming special education. But reform should not stop there.
Federal regulations for special education programs span 230 pages of the Federal Register, laying out rigid, process-intensive requirements for schools to follow. As a result, many special education teachers spend so much time completing required paperwork that it compromises their ability to do a good job.
Current federal regulations also prohibit schools from expelling or even suspending disabled students who commit dangerous infractions involving illegal drugs, guns, or other weapons, unless they first prove that the violation is not related to the student’s disability. This ties the hands of the school officials who are responsible for keeping schools safe.
President Bush’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education will announce its findings in early July, and both the Administration and leaders in Congress plan to use the Commission’s findings to form the basis for their reform agendas. If they succeed in standing up to the powerful teacher unions and interest groups who oppose real change, maybe when future panels like the National Research Council are asked whether placement in special education is a benefit or a risk, they will be able to provide a more confidence-inspiring answer.
—Don Soifer is Executive Vice President of the Lexington Institute.
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