Commentary | Education

Lessons—Rethinking Special Needs Without Losing Ground

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Rethinking Special Needs Without Losing Ground

By Richard Rothstein

Until Congress enacted a special-education law in 1975, schools often ignored children with disabilities. Millions of special-needs children, in homes or quasi-medical institutions, got no schooling at all. Others, in schools, got only token help; many failed or dropped out.

To end this scandal, federal law gave parents of such children extraordinary rights. But this led to a burgeoning bureaucratic system. Costs soared. Since the law’s passage, nearly half of all new school spending has gone to special-education programs that serve 11 percent of children.

Can this spending be brought under control without returning to earlier patterns of neglect? Can schools be trusted to serve the disabled if rigid rules are relaxed?

Some states are experimenting, trying to restrain costs without diluting the quality of service. It’s too early to call these reforms successful, but they hold promise.

The need for change is clear when we consider how differently regular education and special education are financed. For regular programs, districts raise what money they can and then see what services they can afford — how small to make classes or how much to pay teachers.

But in special education, they first design services, then look for money to pay for them. Schools decide what a child needs: a specialist, medical attendant, aide, separate class or specialized private school. If districts do not pay for appropriate help, parents can sue and judges can order services. To pay for them, districts may have to curtail other programs or raise taxes.

For each special-education child, the law requires a plan set by a committee of regular and specialized teachers, a psychologist, the principal, medical personnel and the child’s parents or legal advocate. They must conduct an annual review and devise a new plan every three years.

Cumbersome and costly it may be, but such formal planning is needed for pupils with serious problems like Down syndrome or severe autism. Parents need legal support to ensure that schools with competing demands don’t ignore such children.

But for milder problems, the rules create perverse incentives. Because schools get extra state and federal money for special-education students, they may needlessly refer borderline cases to the program.

Some slow learners, for example, might be better served by extra help from regular teachers. But this earns no extra money, so districts may instead term such children learning-disabled to qualify for aid to hire specialists.

To avoid this, states like California and Pennsylvania have stopped reimbursing schools for most special-education costs. They assume that disabilities generally occur with regular frequency. So districts get special-education money based on enrollment, not on how many students are classified as disabled.

Called census-based finance, the experiment should encourage early intervention.

If states stop paying for added specialists when pupils are termed learning-disabled, districts might consider alternatives. Perhaps lowering class size and training regular teachers to individualize early grade instruction will be enough for some special-needs children. If so, fewer will need costly specialists later when disabilities are harder to handle.

Schools’ legal obligations to serve all pupils remain, so parents can still demand special services. But with needs addressed early, parents should have less reason to do so.

The federal government provides few special-education dollars but also now uses census-based methods. It assumes that disabilities occur evenly in all states, but states with more poverty get more money because inadequate nutrition and health care cause learning disabilities and harm regular achievement.

But once poverty-adjusted allotments are set, states no longer get more federal money for classifying more special-education children.

In New York, the Regents urged census-based financing, but the Legislature demurred. Instead, the state continues to reimburse actual special-education costs, but districts get extra money when students with disabilities are in regular classes, even if accompanied by specialists.

New York hopes to restrain costs by encouraging regular teachers to assume more responsibility for instructing these pupils. To take advantage of this incentive, the New York City Board of Education recently approved a plan to move thousands of special-education students into regular classrooms.

Other states will watch to see if New York can restrain special-education spending without census-based reform.

Ideally, every child’s education should be tailored to need. If schools get smaller classes with better trained faculty, and census-based finance or similar reforms work as planned, slow learners could get more individualized instruction, without formal plans and with fewer specialists. And that’s how their nondisabled classmates should be taught as well.

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