Education Letter to the Editor


December 13, 2000 19 min read
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How Private Schools Lost IDEA Services

To the Editor

Your article “IDEA Opens Doors, Fans Controversy” (Nov. 29, 2000) should be retitled “IDEA Opens Some Doors, Closes Others, and Fans Controversy.” You missed one of the most controversial components of the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997: services to children with disabilities who attend private schools.

Between 1973 and 1997, children with learning disabilities who attended private schools were eligible to receive direct services. “All handicapped children” included all eligible handicapped children who attended private schools. Services were rendered either at the state school or the private school or a combination of both. For the lack of a better expression, these children were “dual enrolled” in order to receive services promised by both the U.S. Congress and their state governments. Children were served. Needs were met. It was win-win.

All of that changed beginning in the summer of 1997. The doors for these children were summarily closed.

First, the federal government, in its implacable wisdom, decided that children who attend private schools no longer have a right to services. They used to, but somehow they don’t anymore. They used to, because they did receive services between 1973 and 1997. This includes deaf children and blind children. Which services? Special education. Unfortunately, too, most states decided to copy the federal language verbatim and have since excluded children with disabilities from state services if they attend a private school.

Second, Congress invented new language to explain away old guilt. Districts must offer these parents what is termed “free, appropriate public education.” But nowhere in the law does Congress define what this means. What it means for kids, however, is that, if you’re disabled and you want services, you’ve got to leave your private school and come to the state school. If you stay in your private school, you receive almost no services at all. Why did lawmakers do this? Congress once promised that it would fund 40 percent of the states’ special education budgets. But it funds only around 10 percent.

So, in the summer of 1997, it seems that some large organizations got to Congress and said, “If you guys don’t ante up the promised 40 percent funding, you’d better get these private school kids off our backs.” And Congress did. In more than 300 pages of guidance, the federal government tries to explain how eligible handicapped children who attend private schools really aren’t handicapped and/or eligible.

Congress forced parents into a constitutional crisis worse than the recent Florida-vote fiasco. The Pierce v. Society of Sisters decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925 guaranteed that parents may choose an education for their children consistent with their values. But the IDEA says, “If you want special education services for your child, you can only get that at the state school.”

In the same decision, the high court also said this:

"[T]he fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

The language of the IDEA forces parents to accept special education instruction from “public” teachers only. If these same parents wish to exercise their right to choose schooling for their children with disabilities, they cannot.

The word “all” in the original Education for All Handicapped Children Act, then, is really “some.” Win means lose. And once again, kids pay the price.

Robert A. Teegarden
Director of Education
California Catholic Conference
Sacramento, Calif.

Charters Have One Unfair Advantage

To the Editor:
Re: “Special Education Audience Wants Changes In IDEA” (Reporter’s Notebook, Nov. 22, 2000): I was quite bothered by the comments attributed to charter school administrators, who indicated that “the rules and regulations for special education had hampered their efforts to institute innovative curricula.”

The reported recommendation by Michael Rodi, an analyst for the American Institutes of Research in Washington, to provide more funding to charter schools as well as granting them freedom from some of the special education regulations was absurd.

The proponents for charter schools and their first cousins, education voucher programs, continually try to convey the notion that competition will serve to improve the services provided by public schools. If that is truly their message, then charter schools, as well as schools that accept tuition vouchers, should be willing to comply with all of the mandates required of their public school counterparts.

I sincerely doubt that they would want to “compete” under those conditions.

Richard B. Weisenfeld
Harrington Park School District
Harrington Park, N.J.

Spec. Ed. Increases: Parents Not to Blame

To the Editor:

In “Special Education Audience Wants Changes in IDEA” (Reporter’s Notebook, Nov. 22, 2000), you paraphrased from a presentation we did at a national conference on special education issues, writing that we blamed the increasing costs of special education on excessive parent advocacy. Not only did we not say that, but we said just the opposite.

For the past four years, a task force of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents has been studying the increases in special education costs in the state. We were able to determine that increasing costs were not caused by district policy and practice and parent advocacy. In contrast, district policy and practice had been effective in containing and even reducing the percentage of children who required special-needs services.

We found that the cost increases have been primarily due to the increased numbers of children with more significant special needs who require more costly services. The study shows that the root causes of these increases were factors beyond the control of schools or parents. The causes included the advances in medical technology that enable children to survive who would not have survived in the past, the deinstitutionalization of children with special needs and their placement in school settings, the privatization of special education services, and such economic and social factors as the rise of the number of children in poverty and the number of families experiencing social and economic stress.

Although the study’s focus was on Massachusetts, national data on special education reveal that these factors may be influencing the increased number of children in special education nationally.

The increases in seriousness of disabilities in the population in general and the increase in the number of young children with moderate and severe disabilities will require greater expenditures in special education in the future. The long-term solution requires that state and federal governments support school districts in meeting the responsibility for special education. Local communities cannot bear the burden of special education cost increases alone. The federal and state share in the financial responsibility for serving special-needs children must increase so that districts can adequately pursue their education reform goals.

The study can be downloaded from: www.massupt.org.

Sheldon Berman
Hudson Public Schools
Hudson, Mass.

Perry Davis
Dover-Sherborn Public Schools
Dover, Mass.

Do U.S. Reformers Work Backwards?

To the Editor:

England’s approach to education reform seems very different from the approach taken in the United States, as summarized in the Commentaries in your Nov. 15, 2000, issue. “Standards, Tests, and Civil Rights” by William L. Taylor typifies reform in the United States. Reform is characterized by high standards and high-stakes tests to hold the system accountable for reaching the standards. All the other necessary elements of reform, such as curriculum development, teacher training, and financial support, will somehow automatically flow from the high standards and the high-stakes tests.

England, on the other hand, as described by Michael Barber’s Commentary, “Large-Scale Reform Is Possible,” places high standards at the end of the reform process, as a result of reform, rather than as a cause. Tests are not an element of reform but rather a means of measuring the effects of reform: such things as financial support, teacher training, and support for schools with special needs.

Is it possible that American educators and politicians have the education reform process backwards? Is it possible that high standards and high test scores are the results of reform rather than the causes?

Charles Nevi
Newcastle, Wash.

‘Adults in Charge’ vs. Control Freaks

To the Editor:

In his recent Commentary “Who’s in Charge?” (Nov. 15, 2000), Louis A. Chandler does a nice job in the first four paragraphs of identifying the “secondary gain” that takes place in schools. He advocates the role of teachers as “adults in charge,” and I couldn’t agree more.

Mr. Chandler then proceeds to express accusations of potential emotional fallout from four specific current educational practices. I’m sorry, but based upon my experiences as a student, a teacher, and a school principal, I just don’t see it. Can an adult in a school lose the respect of students and parents? You bet. Is it because of cooperative learning, constructivist methods, peer mediation, and fun and games? I repeat, I’m sorry, I just don’t see it.

Yes, adults need to be in charge. Adults need to direct both the formal and secondary learning that takes place in the school. But we must be careful that we don’t allow ourselves to do so from a position of power and control that, while appearing to be “in charge” on the surface, is actually just manipulating children into submission, a process that ultimately causes a loss of respect.

I have used cooperative learning and been surprised at how much more I am able to learn about the learners when I remove myself from the lecture, drill-and-practice mode of teaching and create a classroom in which students learn from and with one another. I have incorporated constructivist methods and been tickled pink when I watch learners conclude the “truth” on their own and not just because I, as the “person in charge,” told them so. Though I have not yet used peer mediation, I know, as a principal, that there are times when students who can help other students solve problems before they become conflicts are a godsend. And fun and games? They allow others to see me as a human being, not an inflexible, unapproachable control freak.

All of these practices have served me well in 27 years of working with children. Could they have backfired? Yes. But so could any other of the practices used in the name of learning. It’s not the practice, but the person, that creates the credibility and respect for the “adult in charge.”

Bob Arp
Lakeview High School
Columbus, Neb.

Great Civics Lessons Offer a Connection

To the Editor:

As a civic educator for most of my professional life, I have come to the conclusion that what you call “great civics lessons” are hard to find in the traditional curriculum, which focuses almost entirely on national government (“Election Called ‘A Great Civics Lesson,’” Nov. 22, 2000).

A great civics lesson should be one that connects government to one’s life and to issues that affect the real people we know. The “great lesson” we are now engaged in concerning the presidential election does no such thing. It emphasizes politics as a contest of winners and losers who are very distant from the real world in which most of us live.

Of course, our national leadership and the policies adopted in Washington are important. But if we really want to teach a great civics lesson to millions of young Americans, it should be done by using service learning to link local government to the vital issues of our own communities. Opportunities exist in every community for young people to tackle issues and problems that affect their daily lives as a part of civic education. Instead, because of the curriculum’s national focus, inattention to local government limits opportunities for “a great civics lesson.”

When service learning becomes a part of civic education, it holds promise as a reform that can prepare our young people to become active and engaged citizens. But that will only happen if we stop viewing civic life as another sporting contest, with the presidential election as a kind of “Super Bowl,” and focus instead on the issues facing our communities.

Todd Clark
Executive Director
Constitutional Rights Foundation
Los Angeles, Calif.

Gaining Seniors’ Support for Schools

To the Editor:

Re: “Shades of Gray” (On Assignment, Nov. 29, 2000):
I recently helped run a campaign to build a new high school in our town. The state has a petition-drive law that allows people opposed to new taxes to halt construction for at least one year. While there was some opposition by senior citizens, it was not as much as we had been led to believe. The fear factor of the new tax somehow forcing seniors to sell their homes and move away was not as potent as opponents hoped it would be.

What we discovered was that “new retirees” were less likely to endorse the project because they had never planned on an increase in taxes in their budgets. That’s a problem. Early retiress need to be prepared for community needs. The fact that they are no longer working does not relieve them of their duty to support their community financially. If states want to allow seniors some exemption from this duty, will communities still want to attract seniors?

We explained that the tax impact would be greatest on new-home construction, businesses, and on large-square-footage homes. Since seniors usually don’t live in new or large-square-footage homes, we felt this might allay their fears.We also noted that having a new high school would mean opportunities for seniors to use such facilities as the pool, the fieldhouse, the weight room, and a meeting room. Stressing the community ownership of this new facility was an important factor in its acceptance by all members of our community.

M.J. Klepsch
Crown Point, Ind.

Wasting Our Energy in Language Debates

To the Editor:

In his recent letter to the editor (“Immersion Facts,” Letters, Nov. 15, 2000), Stephen Krashen takes my description of a student’s progress in English- language learning in Bethlehem, Pa., and adds his own phrase: “clearly insufficient for a full academic program in English.”

In the 16 elementary schools in Bethlehem, all English-language learners are in their home schools in mainstream classes right from the first day of school. They receive supplemental support from the English-acquisition teacher for 75 minutes daily, support designed to make much of the classroom experience comprehensible. Each student is evaluated twice yearly in oral language, reading, and writing. The number of years of English-as-a-second-language supplemental support is determined by individual student needs.

Classroom teachers do adapt some of the curriculum, such as the weekly spelling words and the level of books used for guided reading needed by the students. Students develop both oral language and literacy in English through reading of poems and stories and daily writing. These students indeed receive a full academic program in English. Our district also offers Reading Recovery to 1st graders at the bottom of their 1st grade classes. The great majority of these students go on to read at average or better levels.

Mr. Krashen’s work in language acquisition has given us valuable concepts such as understanding the silent period, lowering the student’s affective filter, and increasing comprehensible input. His work and that of other leaders in the field can help us do even more to improve the English learning of our second-language learners in mainstream classes. Bitter controversies over only one year of support vs. bilingual education polarize communities and waste precious energy.

Ann Goldberg
Coordinator of English Acquisition
and Literacy
Bethlehem Area School District
Bethlehem, Pa.

In Superintendent Searches, a Dearth of ‘Thinking Out of the Box’

To the Editor:

Thomas E. Glass’ essay “The Shrinking Applicant Pool” (Commentary, Nov. 8, 2000) discusses reasons why the superintendency has become less attractive and suggests ways to improve the situation. He touches the bases of contentious boards, conflict in board-superintendent relations, media criticism, inadequate compensation, and the mushrooming number of special interests, among others. Some of his suggestions for improvement are increased job security (six-year contracts), better evaluation (state-adopted standard evaluation forms), and budgets for adequate central-office staffing (to reduce the burdensome tasks of the superintendent).

Mr. Glass understands the problems and offers reasonable solutions. My hunch, however, is that even if his recommendations were taken, there would still be a shortage of superintendents. The issue isn’t just making the job more acceptable, it’s deciding who can be a superintendent. With the doors closed to those outside the educational establishment, not only will the shortage continue, but the quality of the people available will also be at issue.

During an administrative career of over 30 years, I have worked with many great superintendents, but I also have been fortunate enough to meet people in other walks of life that I think would make outstanding superintendents. Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell comes to mind, for example. So does former Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey, now the president of Drew University, as well as Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the chairman and chief executive officer of IBM, and John Anderson, who headed the organization New American Schools.

Each of these individuals is highly intelligent and of superb character. They all have the will to win and a passion about their work. They have demonstrated an ability to lead organizations to success, solving complex problems while dealing with a constantly changing environment. All communicate well, understand financial, legal, and human issues, and have built strong organizations.

I can hear the critics saying, “Wait a minute, they haven’t taught, and they don’t know enough about curriculum issues.” True. But should that disqualify them from serving as a superintendent of schools? I don’t think so.

Any prospective candidate outside the traditional path to the superintendency might profit from spending a few weeks in the classroom. I say might, because I am not convinced it would make much difference in what they would bring to the position. Nor would it affect their contribution to the school system. We assume that teaching will somehow make a person a better superintendent. I challenge that assumption. I’d wager that Gen. Powell or Mr. Gerstner, for example, would be able in short order to learn more about curriculum issues than most current superintendents. This is not because we don’t have many fine superintendents; it is because of these men’s proven ability to learn well and learn quickly.

When we continue to do things simply because that’s the way we’ve always done it, we think within the box and get what we have now, the consequences of narrow thought. And the larger the educational organization, the less I feel is the requirement to know such areas as curriculum in great depth. It is more important to hire the right person, and know how to get the very best performance from him or her.

Your excellent article in the same issue on the relationship between military leaders and education (“A Boot Camp for Leaders,” Nov. 15, 2000) was instructive. Questions that military leaders deal with at the Army War College, such as “How do you build coalitions? How do you facilitate future operations? How do you create the conditions for success?” also apply to corporate leaders, police chiefs, mayors, and perhaps even school superintendents.

Until we realize how insular we are as a profession and begin to open the doors to talented people who have demonstrated the ability to lead, manage, and get results in difficult circumstances, we will continue to lament the shortage of good applicants for our top positions. Meanwhile, a solution is before our very eyes.

Saul Cooperman
Bernardsville, N.J.

The writer was formerly the state commissioner of education for New Jersey. He is the president of Citizens for Better Schools, a nonprofit organization based in Morristown, N.J.

To the Editor:

What we are not usually told in articles about the shortage of applicants for top administrative positions in education is that the people doing the searches are, for the most part, the same recycled superintendents or retired superintendents who maintain the status quo. A candidate’s profile needs to meet their expectations, and many with experience and credentials—but not connections—do not reach the interview stage of the process.

In spite of what we are led to believe, there are more than a “few good men and women” out there who will not have the opportunity to be principals, assistant superintendents, and superintendents. Their résumés are just not looked at, or they did not get a phone call asking about them, or receive a recommendation from a sitting superintendent. Some have become discouraged and no longer apply. They see the futility of going through the process without the right connections.

We now see consulting firms doing the searches for positions below the superintendency as well. Are current district administrators really not capable of finding people at the district level to fill a high school principalship or an assistant superintendent’s job without the assistance of a search firm?

In many places, educational leadership stagnates because the pool remains the same. I have hired principals and directors in my day, and I have always strived to find those applicants who, based on something more in their résumés, could do the job well. This is not the armed services, where, if you do not make a certain rank within a certain amount of time, you need to leave, or, if you made the rank and had some bad luck, you can never lead again.

Educational leadership becomes more and more critical every day. It requires people with courage, fortitude, and a true calling to work with children. The traditional route of recruiting and evaluating candidates for these positions through a network of retired or recycled leaders who consult among themselves will no longer suffice. Search committees should look at applicants’ résumés with a view to “thinking out of the box.”

But that will probably never happen, because search consultants usually have a “fit” they are looking for. Being in the consultants’ circles of candidates guarantees consideration. They call the process “networking.”

The losers are the children. The winners, in many cases, are the recycled administrators.

Arnold Jaeger
Hawthorne, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as Letters


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