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Special ed: Take 2

Much has been achieved, but the stage is set for a debate over funding

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 26, 2002


Lauren Garofalo and her crowd of seventh-grade cronies – all gunning for college and brimming with ambition – couldn't be more surprised to hear that almost a third of the children at their school are labeled "learning disabled."

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"We came here because it's a small school and you get to know more people and you get more attention," Lauren says, nibbling on a thick, salty pretzel in the cafeteria as her friends nod agreement.

That's the beauty of the Brooklyn Studio Secondary School. Children with disabilities are so well integrated into regular classes at this public school for sixth- through 12th-graders that an art teacher hesitates when asked to submit student artwork for a prize from a group for the disabled, not certain which students qualify.

At the same time, because each learning-disabled student brings extra funding, the school can afford to keep class sizes small and put two adults in many classrooms – a benefit that makes parents of children without disabilities keen to get them in the door.

Overall, the Brooklyn Studio school is an example of how special education can succeed, not only keeping children with disabilities in the mainstream, but also benefiting those with whom they attend class.

Unfortunately, say critics of special education in its current form, the Brooklyn school is also an example of how the system can work – but more often does not.

In 1975, Congress turned a page in education history by passing what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), promising a "free and appropriate public education" for all children with disabilities – a term that has come to encompass everything from mental retardation to speech impediments.

Twenty-seven years later, debate continues as to whether IDEA has ushered in a new era of educational justice or become a bureaucratic monster consuming a disproportionate share of resources. The act is up for reauthorization, which is scheduled for this year, although some predict Congress will not handle it until 2003.

Proponents argue that today, approximately 6.5 million schoolchildren have been identified as disabled and are receiving tailored educational services. Before 1975, disabled children were not tracked as thoroughly, but at least 1.5 million of them were receiving no education. The increased investment, advocates point out, can boost the future prospects of special-education students and stem their significant dropout and delinquency rates.

But critics say IDEA has siphoned off resources from regular education to the tune of an estimated $30 billion-plus annually. (The average cost of offering a child special education is more than twice the tab of traditional education.) Onerous red tape has driven some gifted teachers out of the field, and subjective systems of student classification regularly draw charges of racism, given the high numbers of minorities shuffled into special-education programs.

Worst of all, gains are hard to quantify and don't necessarily add to a school's luster. Including special-education students' test scores in school results generally drags numbers down, even in the most successful of programs.

The result is considerable tension over how to handle the balance of needs between traditional students and those in need of more special attention.

"This should be the subject of a heart-wrenching discussion in this country," says Rick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Including all – and paying the bills