Funded Into Perpetuity

The Real Special Education Crisis Is Not Rising Costs, But Student Outcomes

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A more apt headline for Education Week's page-one story "States Rethink How To Pay for Special Education" (Nov. 27, 1996) might have been: "States Think of New Ways Not To Pay for Special Education." Evidently, officials have decided that if they can't fix the problems in special education, they can make it go away by a process of attrition.

Among the many problems now widely acknowledged as afflicting special education is the fact that fully half of the 5 million or so enrolled students, those in programs for the learning-disabled, do not receive an adequate education. To be fair, this singular failure is offset by the equally spectacular achievement of literally unlocking the doors of public education for hundreds of thousands of children who otherwise would have been denied such access.

But the fact that there was no mention of parents in the article on special-education costs is testimony to their continuing low status in the field. That the consumers of special education services are not participating in any meaningful way in the "rethinking" mentioned means that any new funding method is likely to preserve the status quo while perpetuating its attendant and profound problems.

As a consumer of special education services, I can see that the debate on funding is not guided by any real desire to reform special education. It is being driven by open challenges among educators on the sanctity of special education funding. In a era of declining resources, brought about by diminished confidence in the leaders of our educational enterprise, the money set aside for special education has become an all too tempting target.

Elegant rationales for sharing this money with other programs are being offered, chief among these the so-called need for more "flexibility." For the consumer skilled at reading between the lines, "flexibility" does not mean better education, it means less accountability. "Flexibility" is a code word that springs from a desire to escape the special education mandate. But the mandate did not dictate the rigid programs from which officials now seek relief. These programs, which evidently have become unmanageable in terms of cost, are entirely the invention of education bureaucrats.

The heart of the debate about funding is the sad fact that no one wants to pay for special education. Indeed, the "rethinking" article depicts states and districts at each other's throats in a vigorous struggle to avoid special education costs. The reason for this is that many of our public officials do not now and never really have fully embraced their responsibility to educate all children.

The truth of this observation is demonstrated by the public confession last year, in the form of a judicial consent decree, by one of the largest special education programs in the nation to charges that it "pervasively and continuously failed to ... serve the educational needs of children with disabilities" (Chanda Smith v. Los Angeles Unified School District Consultant's Report). It is noteworthy that this finding follows by more than 20 years the passage of the special education mandate, Public Law 94-142.

Is there enough money for special education? According to the article, special education policymakers do not seem to understand what causes special education costs to increase, or even if they really are increasing. This is not surprising. Here in California, we managed in a recent year to spend between $2.7 billion and $3.1 billion (the exact figure is not known) on special education, without the benefit of what would pass for a budget document.

It is hard to believe that policymakers don't know what causes special education costs to increase. Conceivably, they don't want to know. Among those who believe costs are skyrocketing, the fact that special education staffing over the past 20 years has grown at approximately twice the rate of the student population seems to have escaped attention.

Likewise, officials seem unable to understand the relationship between growth in programs and poorly conceived eligibility standards, so notoriously bad that children "qualified" for services in one state or location frequently won't be in another. This problem is compounded by the near-total absence of exit criteria. Only a tiny fraction of those growing numbers who enter special education ever leave. The consequences of this reality seem not to have been calculated.

Although rarely acknowledged, events outside special education can have a profound effect on enrollments. For example, while class size here in California was growing to one of the largest student-teacher ratios in the nation, we were charting a disastrous course toward a single method of teaching reading (whole language). In this same period, enrollments in programs for the learning-disabled increased by over 60,000. Officials in California have not made this connection, possibly because it would mean taking responsibility for mistakes made in regular education and then acknowledging these mistakes as chief causes for otherwise mysterious epidemics of learning disabilities.

Educators would have us believe that millions of children have trouble learning in school because of innate defects or disorders, not because of the way they are taught. These same officials prefer to believe that it is the children who cause special education costs to rise, rather than the way in which they have devised and manage the system.

However, once established, special education programs inevitably become "entitlements," not for children, many of whom pass through these programs untouched by a successful learning experience, but for the numerous professionals assembled to staff them. Such programs are funded into perpetuity, without regard for educational outcomes.

One way to determine if there is enough money for special education is to observe with our own eyes what districts actually do with their financial resources. Over the past few years, two California districts have together spent well over $1 million to, in one case, prevent the full inclusion of a child (the district lost) and, in the other, retaliate against a teacher who advocated for a child in need of special education services (a case that is on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court). These are not isolated examples. There appears to be plenty of money for special education but not necessarily for special education children.

If consumers were invited to the table to discuss special education funding, we would argue that the issue is not about limited funds. It is about what we are getting for the money. One measure is provided by the high-school-graduation rate, which recently stood at a mere 30 percent for the more than 500,000 students with disabilities here in California.

Special education consumers have a clear understanding of what needs to change in special education. If our voice were heard, the focus would be on solutions to deeply entrenched and intractable problems. For starters, we would articulate the need to connect the funding for special education interventions to educational outcomes--a concept that appears beyond the grasp of our education leaders.

Last year, the steering committee of the California Coalition of Special Education Parent Groups sent a white paper to the California legislature that provided an analysis of special education funding written from the consumer perspective. Among the suggestions contained in this 30-page document is one to connect educational outcomes to funding by direct reimbursement of individualized-education-plan teams. Full reimbursement for actual costs would be conditional on agreement among members of the IEP team, including parents, that the program has met its educational objectives. A compelling advantage of this idea is elimination of the many layers of bureaucracy that stand between funding and the learner.

Dismayed state officials in California have ridiculed the idea as unworkable--one indication that we are on the right track. But the real reason for their anxiety is unstated. If adopted, this modest proposal would be a first step toward dismantling the special education bureaucracy. This is not what planners currently have in mind as they "rethink" special education funding.

Vol. 16, Issue 18, Page 30

Published in Print: January 29, 1997, as Funded Into Perpetuity

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