President Bush's call to "leave no child behind" has special meaning when it comes to educating students with special needs.
Even though they make up 12 percent of the student population, these individuals can too easily be ignored by school districts focused on producing students with high scholastic achievement and high test scores.
All too often, special ed is perceived as a budget-consuming monster rather than an admirable commitment to expand educational opportunity by creating a substantive learning experience for children and teenagers in special-ed programs. Mr. Bush struck a note of hope for these students by establishing the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education. Its recommendations will be issued next spring, just as Congress takes up rewriting the landmark 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Under IDEA, the federal government was supposed to pay 40 percent of the cost of educating students with special needs. It has not done that since the bill was passed. The IDEA budget now runs a hefty $60 billion a year, with the federal government picking up just $7 billion of that tab, or 11.6 percent.
Educating students with special needs often requires additional dollars, but those dollars are not always efficiently spent. The federal government can do a better job of assisting state and local education systems in their allocation efforts.
More important, improving special education requires patient, dedicated teachers willing to take on the challenge of adapting curriculum and working with students with an especially wide range of abilities. Education leaders and special-ed educators can play a role in changing an assumption far too persistent - that special-ed students require an education wholly, or mostly, apart from other students. Then the notion of "achievement" may expand to include all students striving for a good education in America's schools.