December 12, 2001
The Battle Over Special Education
he leaders of the House and Senate reached formal agreement yesterday on a groundbreaking education bill. But Republican leaders, with the support of the White House, defeated an attempt by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa to dramatically increase financing for special education. The Bush administration argues that the issue should be put off until next year, when the whole special education program comes up for review. Both sides in this debate have a point. The special education system needs both more money and more reform.
In the early 1970's, those disabled children who went to school at all were sometimes found strapped into their chairs and screaming, in conditions that resembled the Dark Ages. The picture changed in 1975 when Congress passed the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which ordered the states to provide disabled children "a free, appropriate public education." Congress pledged back then to supply 40 percent of all special education funding — but never managed to push the funding above the current, paltry level of about 16 percent. Meanwhile, special education costs have soared — from about $1 billion 25 years ago to more than $50 billion this year.
The current system, although far superior to what went before, has two major defects. Some schools use special education as a kind of federally supported dumping ground for difficult students. Children with reading problems that should be dealt with in regular classrooms are often shunted into special education instead. Federal authorities have also cited several districts for warehousing disproportionate numbers of black and Latino children in special education classes where they learn little and never graduate.
Meanwhile, other schools, faced with skyrocketing costs, have begun pushing students out of their small special education classes under the guise of "mainstreaming." Even skilled teachers need support services to handle classes that include both disabled and nondisabled students. But many schools push the disabled into crowded classrooms where they compete with nondisabled peers under uncertified teachers who cannot meet their needs.
The White House has rightly urged Congress to repair the defects in the special education program that allow these terrible conditions to exist. But Congress is also right to argue that the federal government must pay its fair share to educate the nation's most vulnerable children. Waiting until next year to do these reforms makes sense, but only if the administration intends to do more than simply delay sufficient spending.