Tuesday, February 22, 2005

On raising a child with disabilities, part 8: A problem with special education—in which I break a taboo & discuss the economies of scale

In the bad old days, parents had only three options for educating their children with disabilities: Either they paid for the education themselves (which is still done by those fortunate enough to have the financial means), they depended on charitable organizations such as United Cerebral Palsy, Easter Seals, etc., or they sent their child to a state school. In many cases, children whose parents couldn’t afford to travel didn’t see their parents for months at a time.

Then the U.S. federal (national) government passed a law requiring not only that a free and appropriate education be provided to every child, but, also, that that education be provided close enough to each child’s residence that s/he could live at home.

The good news was that no longer would a child of six be torn away from his or her family and sent to live in a far-away residential school until s/he graduated from high school. Finally, a child with disabilities could be raised within the family.

What nobody talks about is the bad news. In the days when most children with disabilities were sent to state schools, one school, (or, in the case of states with high populations, a small group of schools) obtained all the teachers, assistant teachers, aides, special equipment, assistive devices, etc., needed to educate just about every child with that particular disability in that state. (An example of an assistive device is an FM unit, which consists of a microphone worn by the speaker [in educational settings, usually the teacher] and a transceiver that transmits the words coming from the microphone directly into the wearer’s hearing aid, thereby radically reducing background noise and making speech easier to understand. I think this also works with cochlear implants.) Now, as a result of the current law, just about every school district in every state has to do the same thing. So, instead of blind or deaf kids with no additional disabilities being taught in classes of, say, 15 children, a similar class in a low-population area might have, say, 8 kids, yet that class would still need a teacher and possibly an assistant, an aide, equipment, assistive devices, etc.

So, the first dirty little secret of the current special education system is that it may cost far more to educate children locally than to “warehouse” them.

The IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) is what’s called an “unfunded mandate,” that is, a law passed by one branch of government (in this case, the “feds”) that requires another branch of government (in this case, the state governments) to provide services for which the mandating branch of government provides absolutely no financial support. The state governments passed the buck (delegated the responsibility) for this special education mandate to the local governments. Therefore, local school districts, funded by local governments, bear almost the entire financial burden of educating children with disabilities, with some reluctant help from equally-unfunded state governments.

So, the second dirty little secret of the current special education system is that, given the fact that special education receives no financial support from the federal government, how could the funding of special education possibly not cut into the funding available for mainstream education?

Both of these "dirty little secrets" explain why local school districts are so desperate to mainstream as many children with disabilities as possible, and to provide the minimum education required by law to children who can’t be mainstreamed.

You can either educate children with disabilities in or near their home districts, thereby keeping them with their families, or, given the fact that special education is an unfunded mandate, you can “warehouse” them in state schools and, thereby, possibly achieve economies of scale that might enable them to receive a better education without their parents having to put up such a fight. But, in my opinion, it’s almost impossible to do both.

If anyone knows of a solution to this problem, please share it.

Here's a later thought: It's possible that the costs of housing and feeding all those children in centralized residential schools might offset the costs of decentralizing special education. If that's the case, then I've just shot myself in the foot, big-time. What's your opinion?

On the third hand (you should pardon the expression), perhaps the real problem is that education is considered the responsibility of the states, yet the protection of children (and adults) with disabilities (see also the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, among other laws) is considered the responsibility of the federal government. Hence, the federal government mandates many services for which it does not pay. Would the education system in the United States be better funded if it were nationalized? And would it be worth giving up local control in exchange for federal funding?

And you thought that the only school-funding issue worth discussing was the question of whether it's appropriate and/or constitutional for local governments to subsidize religious schools!



Blogger Eliyahu said...

thanks for your thoughtful series, and for sharing your life with us.

Fri Mar 04, 07:45:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

You're very welcome. If I've been able to steer some parents , or future parents, in the right direction, or to help non-parents or parents of "normal" kids understand some of the challenges faces by those of us with "challenged" kids, , then it's all been worthwhile.

Sun Mar 06, 11:35:00 PM 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You bring to light the things that no one else wants to talk about. My mother works in special education, and bless her heart, these things are frustrating for her, too. A major problem in our area is that there are kids that would really do well with one on one attention and some mainstream time, and the school tries to accommodate that the best they can, but because the special ed class is rather large, there are not enough aides to go around and really help the kids. It's also frustrating because, not to sound harsh, but there are several families whom we know could afford to send their children to private schools in the area, but choose not to, and instead burden my mother and other teachers/aides with those who benefit the least from "education" in any form. Please do not take that the wrong way, but there are two children in my mother's classroom who are literally semi-comatose and have no communication skills whatsoever. Yet my mother is expected to come up with "lesson plans" for these "students" when in reality all she is is a glorified babysitter...

Our education system really sucks. That's all I have to say.

Thu Feb 15, 03:11:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Anonymous, I wish I were as good at suggesting solutions as I am at pointing out problems. Unfortunately, it seems to me that this is one area in which "throwing money at the problem" seems the only solution possible. Fundamentally, everyone pays lip service to special education, but no one wants to actually pay for it. What exactly does one do with a semi-comatose child all day if one can't afford full-time nursing care?

Your mother's situation is a case in point. If there were more money available, the school (district) could afford more aides, or, perhaps better yet, could divide the group into two or more classes. I wish your mother the best, and applaud her efforts.

The lack of a national health care plan is also a factor. Guess who pays for hearing aids? Private health insurance rarely covers them. The lack of funding for health care and related services spills over into special education in cases such as your mother's. It means that children who really need specialized home or, perhaps, group-home care, and/or parents and families of the severely disabled in desperate need of respite care, don't get it either because, in many cases, it's simply unavailable--good luck trying to find a group home for a child (or adult) with a serious emotional disability, such as paranoid schizophrenia or conduct disorder--or their parents can't afford to pay for it, and, consequently, these children may be sent to special ed. classes because their parents literally have no better choice.

Thu Feb 15, 06:28:00 AM 2007  

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