Special ed: Take 2

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

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."

"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

Money is at the heart of much of the debate over special education – and is likely to be the issue that causes the most fur to fly as Congress works to reauthorize IDEA. In 1975 when IDEA was enacted, the federal government promised to pick up 40 percent of the tab – a promise it has failed to keep.

Today, the federal government funds about 15 percent of special education, leaving states and local school systems to cover the rest.

The cost burden has dramatically increased in recent years as the definition of "learning disabled" has expanded to include attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and various forms of emotional disturbance.

One problem is that there are two sets of civil rights seemingly placed at opposition to one another. "All children are entitled to a 'free and appropriate edu- cation,' " Professor Hess says, and yet IDEA specifically guarantees those rights to disabled children, while the rights of all other students are less carefully protected. The concern is that the costs of special education could start cutting into programs that make for an "appropriate" education for nondisabled students.

One of the thrusts of the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA was to push school systems toward "inclusion" – the method practiced by the Brooklyn Community School – which encourages the placement of special education students in regular classrooms.

When inclusion is workable, many agree, it's the best solution. The approach has gained momentum over the past few decades: While only 20 percent of children with disabilities were educated in public school 30 years ago, today the figure is closer to 96 percent, with many of these children in a regular classroom for much of the day.

"The social benefits are tremendous," says Ruth Vershleiser, an 11th- and 12th-grade social studies teacher at Brooklyn Community. "The regular education kids motivate [the special education students]."

"It's better because we just look at all the kids the same," agrees Melissa Orlando, a fellow social studies teacher.

That doesn't mean expectations are identical across the board. Take the 10th-grade global technology course, for instance, where the computer screens in a wireless lab are filled with images of Adolph Hitler and the Empire State Building as students home in on the 1930s. Two teachers – one certified and one a para-professional – roam among the desks, peering over shoulders, asking questions, checking on work.

But two sets of expectations are also at work, because the class includes a few students with moderate to severe disabilities. They are not – as their classmates are – being prepared for the tough statewide Regents exams to be given at year's end. They are, however, being given a chance to absorb computer skills and some sense of history in a setting that keeps them grounded in mainstream experience.

Teachers at Brooklyn Studio say they have a system that really works. Joanne Freeman, a middle-grades math teacher, says her background includes 15 years of teaching gifted children, but she prefers working in these successfully integrated classrooms.

Tension in times of cutbacks

Inclusion doesn't always bring such a warm glow to those involved. In Newton, Mass., parents and school administrators are agonizing over decisions to trim music, art, and foreign language programs in the town's highly regarded schools.

One reason for the cutbacks: the high costs of aggressively integrating special education students into mainstream classrooms.

In 1993, Newton had 12 inclusion students. Today it has about 195, many requiring a full-time aide. Since 1995, the school system has added 309 pupil-services positions, mostly dedicated to special education.

At Brooklyn Studio, principal Harold Epstein has mastered both the jargon and the funding mechanisms of special ed. "You've got some Basic 2s and some resource-room kids here," he says, and he knows like the back of his hand the dollar amounts attached to each of these categories.

But he also recognizes that many administrators have not been able to master the system. "Do I believe in most cases the inclusion model is underfunded?" he asks. "Absolutely!"

Ms. Freeman recalls what it was like to work at the school in the early days of inclusion, before funding allowed for class-size reduction and additional support. "It was very frustrating," she says.

With funding seen as crucial to success, many special education advocates are watching the reauthorization process with some discomfort. The Bush administration recently appointed a commission to study special education.

But some special education insiders are nervous about the commission, noting that the appointees are not traditional special education advocates. Some wonder if the commission exists largely to find ways to keep costs down. Certainly, with budget problems already making headlines in Washington, it is hard to imagine cost containment not being a concern.

Education Secretary Rod Paige has been vocal about the notion that many children classified as in need of special education services may simply be students with reading problems who could be brought out from under the special education umbrella.

Yet even those who criticize the system cannot imagine abandoning it.

It is easy to feel discouraged, says Jill Chaifetz, executive director of the New York-based Advocates for Children, especially considering that, despite the money spent, many children are still not served. But if reform is the need, she says, the US has no choice but to strengthen special education, rather than to turn away from it.

"We're caught," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. "It's the right thing to do, but can we afford it?"

We will have to find a way to do so, Chaifetz insists. "Our country has embraced the idea of all children getting an education," she says. "The loss if it doesn't happen is huge."

• E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

How five decades have shaped special education

1950s and '60s: Parent groups and civil rights organizations lobbied strenuously for recognition of the rights of disabled children – a group largely ignored by local schools – to receive public education.

1975: The bill now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – which mandated that disabled children receive a "free appropriate public education" and was expected to cost $2 billion to $4 billion annually – received strong support in Congress and was signed into law by President Gerald Ford.

1980s: Funding for preschoolers with disabilities increased substantially. Congress gave parents the right to be reimbursed for legal costs in successful lawsuits over special education.

1990s: The definition of "disabled" expanded significantly to include categories like attention- deficit disorder and hyperactivity. Between 1988-89 and 1997-98, the number of students covered by the "other health-impaired category" of the law grew by 280 percent.

1997: Reauthorization of IDEA required districts to offer special education students more access to the standard curriculum.

2002: The law once again is up for reauthorization, facing criticism about costs exceeding $30 billion annually and anger over the failure of the federal government to live up to its original promise to pay 40 percent of the costs by 1982.

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