More Special-Ed Kids In School, But Costs Are High
Children who were once the pariahs of the public school system are gaining access to regular classrooms in record numbers. Many that would have spent their childhood warehoused in an institution are going on to college or finding jobs.Skip to next paragraph
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But the cost of educating children with disabilities is $36 billion a year - and soaring. The federal government picks up only about 7 percent of that cost, leaving the rest to states and school districts with sharply different abilities to pay.
Even for a prosperous communities, the tab can be daunting. Recently, the small town of Carlisle in eastern Massachusetts learned that it would need to make $100,000 in structural changes to its school to accommodate a new student with special needs. The town can't raise taxes, because of a ceiling on tax hikes. For now, it looks as if students will still have to use 20-year-old math books.
"Should that child be here? Absolutely! A community includes everyone," says Carlisle superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson. "Do I know where I'm going to come up with that $100,000? Not at the moment. It looks like I'm going to have to seek foundation support for that wonderfully cutting-edge project of replacing algebra books that are falling apart."
For most of the history of US public education, school districts turned away students with disabilities. Some argued that a wheelchair is a fire hazard; others, that students with learning disabilities would be better off in an institution, even though most failed to educate children. Some parents worried that their children would be uncomfortable next to a child with a disability or that schools would lower standards to accommodate special-ed students.
But since the landmark Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, school districts are required to provide a "free appropriate education" to all children, including those labeled as having significant physical or emotional disabilities. IDEA was reauthorized last year, and the Department of Education expects to complete the final regulations to implement it this month.
Factors driving the cost spiral include an increase in the number of economically and medically at-risk students, and the health costs associated with their care. State officials describe the new law as "woefully underfunded" and complain that Washington has reneged on a promise to cover 40 percent of the costs.
"If the federal government actually lived up to its funding criteria, it would owe Florida $300 million annually," says Frank Brogan, Florida's education commissioner. He and other state officials back a $9.3 billion congressional proposal to fully fund IDEA.
The unpredictable costs of providing special education are also giving pause to those aiming to start experimental charter schools. "Schools that want to make the leap to charter status are reluctant because of the unknowns around special education," says Eric Premack, director of the charter-schools project at the Institute for Education Reform in Sacramento, Calif.
Despite funding concerns, many educators credit the law with improving the quality of general education by focusing attention on each child's potential for progress.
Take one of the toughest venues for a child with disabilities: the school gym. Instead of automatically excusing the child in a wheelchair from gym class, schools are adapting to include them.
"When you create more diversity, you're going to force teachers to realize that there are lots of kids who benefit from modification," says Martin Block, who directs adapted physical-education teacher training at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education in Charlottesville.
The movement also launched a generation of intensely involved parent activists who are becoming a model for parent involvement. "If all the parents in my school were as committed to their children's education as the parents of children with disabilities, we'd have one of the best schools in the country," says John Jordan, superintendent of schools in Oxford, Miss.