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Special Education Opinion

A Bad IDEA Is Disabling Public Schools

By Clint Bolick — September 05, 2001 9 min read
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A powerful toxin infects our nation’s education system, imperiling the ability of every public school to fulfill its mission. It is not school vouchers or inadequate funding, but the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

Tracing back to the 1975 legislation enacted to ensure equal educational opportunities for children with disabilities, the IDEA now covers 6.1 million schoolchildren at a cost of $41.5 billion annually, accounting for 40 percent of all new education funding over the past 30 years. Because only 12.5 percent of the money is provided by the federal government, the idea constitutes the largest unfunded federal mandate in American education. Far worse, it creates perverse incentives that have deepened stratification within public education to the detriment of minorities and the poor.

For 26 years, the IDEA has been politically sacrosanct. To criticize it was to be condemned as hostile to disabled children, whose needs the legislation commendably serves. But two new pathbreaking studies, spanning the ideological divide, provide strong support for systemic reform. A report earlier this year by the Harvard University Civil Rights Project found that African-American children were far more likely than white children to be relegated to special education, but less likely to receive the help they need. This summer, a joint study by the moderately conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the “new Democrat” Progressive Policy Institute delivered a far more sweeping condemnation.

Passed with the most benign of intentions, the IDEA mandates that states and local education agencies provide a “free appropriate public education,” based upon an “individualized education program” (known as an IEP) geared to each student’s needs, to all public school children with disabilities. Accompanying the federal rules were funds that eventually were to equal 40 percent of the program’s cost.

The IDEA has evolved in ways that are dizzying yet to all-too predictable when education policy is dictated from Washington.

But the program has evolved in ways that are dizzying yet all-too predictable when education policy is dictated from Washington. Participation in the program was capped at 12 percent of American students. Demand has increased to meet supply: While 8.3 percent of students were classified with special needs in 1976, today that figure is—guess what?—about 12 percent. The overall number of special-needs students has increased by 65 percent in 25 years, attributable to an expansion of the concept of “learning disabilities” that has transformed the IDEA, in the words of G. Reid Lyon of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, into a “sociological sponge to wipe up the ills of general education.”

My interest in the IDEA emanates from personal experience. Seven years ago, my younger son was classified as learning- disabled. When I questioned the battery of experts constituting his IEP team at his Fairfax County, Va., public school about the nature of his disability, I was told that he had a “deficit” in his writing abilities relative to his intellectual capacity. “This is a symptom, not a disability,” I replied. For an hour we went round and round, until finally I realized my son had no disability at all. But the only way the school could get him the extra help he needed in writing was to assign the “learning disability” label—a fact the IEP team reluctantly acknowledged.

In addition to the physical and psychological disabilities that IDEA specifically lists, the law encompasses “specific learning disabilities,” which are not physical disabilities but rather “processing disorders that interfere with one’s ability to perform a number of learning tasks"—a category so murky that James E. Ysseldyke at the University of Minnesota says 80 percent of all children could qualify. The category has exploded from 796,000 children in 1976 to 2.7 million in 1997—a 233 percent increase—so that today more than half of the children covered by the IDEA have no physical disability, but amorphous learning “deficits.” In private schools, these kids would simply receive tutoring or extra help; under the IDEA, they are branded with a label. Meanwhile, slow learners who do not have “deficits” in particular areas, or who can’t get into the program because of capacity or administrative backlogs, often receive no extra help at all. The program creates two segregating impulses: to warehouse certain children, typically minorities and children from impoverished families; and to “cream” others, particularly children whose parents are sophisticated enough to recognize special advantages that the IDEA can confer upon their children.

The law exacerbates educational stratification, warehousing the have-nots while further enriching those who can successfully navigate the system.

The program works least well for children who most need educational opportunities. The Harvard Civil Rights Project study found pervasive, statistically significant overrepresentation of African-American children in special-needs programs in 45 states. Overrepresentation is most acute in the category of mental retardation. But socioeconomic factors do not seem causative: The likelihood of labeling African-American children as mentally retarded actually decreases as the incidence of poverty rises. Meanwhile, African-American special-needs children are far less likely to receive speech, occupational, and physical therapy than their white counterparts.

Two incentives exist to overidentify children from poor families. First is federal funding. Many poor children qualify for federal Title I compensatory education funding; IDEA funding makes them a “two-fer,” in the words of Wade F. Horn and Douglas Tynan in the Fordham Foundation/PPI study. Also, school officials can often exclude special-needs students from high-stakes testing, thereby inflating their standing under state accountability standards. Kentucky, Louisiana, and South Carolina recently reported large gains in reading scores— along with large increases in the percentage of special-needs students excused from standardized tests.

At the other end of the spectrum, sophisticated parents clamor to have their children labeled learning-disabled in order to glean special accommodations, such as reduced homework assignments, extra or unlimited time on tests, laptop computers, personal tutors and note-takers, and so on. In affluent Greenwich, Conn., nearly one in three students has the learning-disabled, or LD, label and the accompanying benefits. Such accommodations can continue through the SATs, the LSATs, and even the bar exam, yielding enormous advantages. The scam is widespread: Although kids from families with incomes over $100,000 make up only 13 percent of those taking the SAT, for example, they account for 27 percent of those receiving special accommodations.

Yet for all the accommodations, a study by the economist Eric Hanushek and others found virtually no academic gains for children with specific learning disabilities. That is unsurprising, given the IDEA’s monomaniacal focus on process—abetted by a battery of lawyers who tie school districts in knots—rather than academic progress.

Sophisticated parents clamor to have their children labeled learning-disabled in order to glean special accomodations.

The program is rule-laden and expensive. In Michigan alone, some 6,000 rules govern special education. Special-needs children cost 2.3 times as much as mainstream children to educate—an average of $13,000 per student vs. an average of $6,200 for all others. In the District of Columbia, one-third of the education budget is expended on 10 percent of the students.

But while other education spending is discretionary, for IDEA beneficiaries it is mandatory and open-ended. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Cedar Rapids Community School District in Iowa was required to pay for a full-time nurse for a paralyzed teenager. Previously, the court had ruled that when public schools default in providing an “appropriate” education, they must foot the full freight of private schools—creating, in essence, the nation’s largest voucher system, providing private schooling for 100,000 youngsters at a cost of $2 billion annually.

Meanwhile, the IDEA creates a double standard for school discipline, requiring educators to determine the extent to which discipline problems are caused by disabilities—a mandate that typically leads to diminished behavioral standards for children labeled disabled.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act unquestionably has helped millions of severely disabled kids achieve to their abilities. But the program is systemically dysfunctional and damaging to public schooling as a whole. The law exacerbates educational stratification, warehousing the have-nots while further enriching those who can successfully navigate the system. Worst off are slow learners from poor families who may receive no help at all. The IDEA skews education funding toward a small segment of children while leaving others with no alternatives.

My son has benefited from compensatory efforts designed to improve his written-communication skills. But every year I have to fend off accommodations that would send false signals about his academic skills. Early on, when I insisted that reduced homework assignments be reflected in his grades, the IEP team looked at me as if I were from another planet. “Don’t you want your son to get good grades?” one team member asked. Last year, an IEP team member reassured me about my son’s lack of progress in spelling by telling me, “It doesn’t matter. We don’t do spelling anymore.” It struck me that I was witnessing the demise of public schooling. And if it’s this perverse for me, I wonder how the system works for parents who, unlike me, do not sue bureaucrats for a living.

At last it is possible to talk about reforms. But talk needs to translate into fast action.

An opening for reform exists in the 2002 IDEA reauthorization. Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont and others want the federal government to substantially ratchet up its share of IDEA costs. But it should do so only in exchange for three systemic reforms.

First, the focus of the IDEA should shift from process to performance. Federal laws already prohibit discrimination against disabled youngsters in public schooling. The IDEA, by contrast, is supposed to be about opportunity. Evidence suggests that the IDEA does not produce academic gains. Funding incentives should be geared toward individual student progress. Second, the “specific learning disabilities” category should be excised from the law. Because states provide the lion’s share of IDEA funding, this would leave the states with responsibility, flexibility, and funding to take care of nondisabled kids with special needs. It might also reduce the accommodations that create a separate and unequal system while doing nothing to improve learning. The result would be an IDEA focused exclusively on students with physical or psychological disabilities, who now number fewer than half the program’s beneficiaries.

Finally, the system should provide parental choice. In Milwaukee and Cleveland, low-income parents have the option of sending their children to private schools, which often can provide a more appropriate learning environment for children with mild disabilities. In Florida, children with disabilities can receive “McKay scholarships” equal to the amount the state would have spent on their education to use in private schools of their parents’ choice. Choice options bolster the program’s accountability while helping ensure the program meets the children’s individualized needs.

At last it may be possible to talk about such reforms. But talk needs to translate into action fast, lest our public schools descend further into a costly, bureaucratic morass that misses entirely the point of the enterprise: to provide equal and high-quality educational opportunities to all American schoolchildren.

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