Special-ed: Leaving no child behind is expensive

A promise to "leave no child behind" has become the educational mantra of the Bush administration. And yet, President Bush's education bill - which failed to address a long-standing special-education funding debate - actually does leave some behind, say advocates for the more than 6 million special-ed children in the United States.

Special education today remains a minefield.

Critics of the current system often lament that while elaborate legal mechanisms have been put into place to guarantee help for children with special needs, many of these students are still not learning effectively. Process, they say, is being valued over substance.

There are also frequent charges of misclassification, with boys and minorities much more likely than others to be lifted out of regular classes and placed in special education.

Inadequate teacher preparation continues to hinder real progress, both in regular classrooms and those dedicated to special-education students.

On top of these, another woe is the continual funding problem. In 1975, when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was signed - and US public schools first recognized a responsibility to educate children with special needs - the federal government agreed to shoulder 40 percent of all special-ed costs.

That promise, however, has never been realized, with federal spending for special education today still at only 15 percent.

Efforts to insert language into the current education bill requiring the government to live up to its original promise were defeated.

For school districts across the country, the financial burden of special education - which is estimated to cost on average about 2.1 times more than regular education - is onerous. The failure of the federal government to offer more help "leaves special education to do battle with the football team, and that's not fair to either," says Jay Shotel, professor of special education at George Washington University in Washington.

However, some observers say, despite the system's many problems, it's important to focus on the distance covered in the relatively short period of 25 years.

"Up through the 1960s you could simply exclude many of these kids from schools," says Peter Kuriloff, professor of education at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "We've made a quantum leap since then."

Having accepted the responsibility to educate all children, others say, society now needs to accept the costs involved in doing so.

"It does cost to serve these children with disabilities," says Nancy Reder, deputy executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education in Alexandria, Va.

"But in order for them to be productive citizens they need to have an education."

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