The Politics of Special-Education 'Backlash'

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We agree with Perry Zirkel's observation that special education is in a precarious position today and that those who care about the education of students with disabilities must speak out now if it is to be saved from a great fall ("'Backlash' Threatens Special Education," Aug. 1, 1990). But Mr. Zirkel missed the primary reasons for special education's vulnerability.

If a "backlash" occurs, it will not be due to excessive costs, outrageous litigative pressures, runaway eligibility, and lack of evidence that special education "works." Rather, widespread disenchantment leading to the withdrawal of legislative, administrative, and fiscal supports will more likely be attributable to political manipulation of public attitudes toward government social programs than to any facts regarding special education's cost or effectiveness.

Mr. Zirkel's Commentary does not account for the social and political context in which special education is being threatened. Special education is merely another convenient target among the social programs that the Reagan Administration, with the acquiescence of members of both political parties, decimated during the past 10 years. For a decade, we have been living with virulent criticism of the social programs of government and highly successful political strategies for incapacitating them.

Antagonism toward social programs became part of the popular American sentiment in the 1980's. The social and economic policy agendas of the 1980's brought substantial cuts in compensatory-education programs, greater limitations on deductions for child care, greater restrictions on earned income in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, tighter income eligibility restrictions in school-lunch and food-stamp programs, and lower income limits and higher required contributions for housing assistance.

As the political analyst Kevin Phillips points out in his new book, The Politics of Rich and Poor, the policies of the 1980's have produced enormous disparities between rich and poor in America. These disparities have exacerbated the problems of the poor and swelled the ranks of those needing social services. Pulling the supports from under such programs has contributed to the increase in the number of children born to mothers who have had little or no prenatal care, and of children who live in poverty, are neglected or abused, have inadequate housing, inadequate nutrition, and substandard education.

Predictably, during the l980's we saw dramatic increases in the population of children who are at serious risk for school failure, and it is understandable that we now have greater need for special education, as well as a growing underclass of children and adults. Slowly, Americans are becoming aware of the disastrous results of the slash-and-burn approach to these programs.

But the public has been late in recognizing the human indecency and long-term economic costs of rationalizing cuts in social programs--emphasizing the "debilitating" and "deskilling" consequences of social assistance and romanticizing individual initiative and self-reliance. The tide has not yet turned in public attitudes toward social-assistance programs, and the political press to "restructure" special education along the lines of other programs continues.

Proposals to restructure special education feature block funding, administrative amalgamation with other programs, and waivers of regulations designed to protect children with disabilities--all intended to reduce immediate cost with little or no regard for long-term consequences. Under these circumstances, special education, like all other social programs, is vulnerable even if it is shown to be cost-effective. The Tufts University researcher Jean Mayer noted last November that research has shown that the federal nutrition program serving women, infants, and children (wic) saves three times its cost in health-care expenditures in one year. Yet wic funds were slashed in the 1980's.

Eviscerating social programs requires justification in the minds of those who incapacitate them through budget cuts or suspension of protective regulations. Critics often provide that justification by creating negative images of programs (which they describe as "not working" or "lavish" or "demeaning" to recipients or creating "dependence") or of the individuals who benefit from them (whom they describe either as "undeserving," because they are not "truly needy," or as able to help themselves if only they are expected to do so).

Programs are depicted as "out of control" (too many recipients of assistance), andatypical cases are highlighted to create the impression that the programs are characterized by regulatory excess, unwarranted expenditures, frivolous litigation, and hideous bungling of attempts to provide relief. Further justification comes through portraying the reduced or restructured programs as efficient and effective and romanticizing the lives of those who succeed without assistance. Special education may yet fall prey to these same strategies that have been used to justify ravaging other social services.

Much of the critical commentary on special education follows a now familiar pattern of attack. Broadsides are fired without regard to political affiliation; the charges are used as a pretext for slicing away at a program that has become an easy target.

For example, Madeleine C. Will, the former assistant secretary of the U.S. Education Department and director of its office of special education and rehabilitative services, charged in 1984 that many children identified as learning-disabled are not actually handicapped. Her statement has been repeated and elaborated by others, who portray special education as serving many nonhandicapped (and therefore undeserving) children whose only misfortune is that they have had inept teachers.

Special education, these critics suggest, is a second system of education. Liberals blast it as inferior and segregationist; conservatives assault it as budget fat or largesse to be shared by all, rather than a few whose needs are not very different from most.

Another strategy for justifying attacks on special education is to emphasize the "judgmental" nature of eligibility decisions, portraying them as totally arbitrary, typically inaccurate, and finally resulting in rampant misidentification of children as handicapped. The charge of misidentification then is used as "evidence" that too many children--and the "wrong" children--are receiving special education.

Ms. Will also emphasized the "adversarial" nature of special education, highlighting conflicts among educators and between parents and school personnel over eligibility and placement. Her call for "partnership" downplayed the existing cooperation between special and regular education and the agreement typically reached by parents and teachers over what is best for the child identified for special education. Others have taken up this tune, decrying the "separateness" of special and general education and depicting the two as in conflict.

Finally, Ms. Will and others cast doubt on whether special education "works," or even can be made to "work" unless it disappears as an identifiable entity in public education. They charge that children identified for special education are not integrated or reintegrated into the mainstream, that their disabilities are manufactured by special education, and that alternatives to special education have been prove effective. They fail to consider the possibility that the problems of many special-education students are not easily remediated, that what got these students identified in the first place were persistent and deep-seated learning and/or behavioral problems.

An important point to consider is that the critics come overwhelmingly from the professional ranks. Very few parents of disabled students are calling for the diminution of special-education pull-out programs for their children. Peruse a copy of the upcoming program for the conference of the Learning Disabilities Association, the primary parent organization in the field of learning disabilities, and you find nary a mention of the "regular-education initiative," regular- and special-education merger, or any of the other code phrases associated with gutting special education.

In the spirit of our times one could, of course, assert that these parents are naive to the evils of special education or are content to hog the extra resources it takes to maintain special programs. We interpret their hesitancy to climb on the bandwagon of special-education bashers as an indication of their justifiable fear that the rhetoric of Madeleine Will and others will lead us back to the days prior to P.L. 94-142, when students with disabilities were so ill-served by the mainstream.

The tragedy of special education in the l990's will not be that it was excessively costly, litigious, misguided, or ineffective. It will be that too many people in positions of influence, including some educators and advocates for handicapped children, accepted as fact the half-truths about special education favored by conservative political ideologues, thereby extending the notions that social programs of government do not work and that reducing or eliminating them will make things better.

The tragedy will also be that others saw through the ploys but did not speak out. Mr. Zirkel's closing line rings true: "Now is the time for the king's horses and the king's men to come to the rescue; tomorrow may be too late."

Vol. 10, Issue 08, Page 25

Published in Print: October 24, 1990, as The Politics of Special-Education 'Backlash'
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