"Our children are our future. Isn't John one of our future? Or the other kids, are they not a future? . . . All of us can't be Einsteins. That's what makes the world go 'round, different people."
This plaintive cry comes from the mother of a child with Muscular Dystrophy who is consigned to a special education program in the Baltimore City Public Schools -- the educational equivalent of a desert island.
Her plea is not without irony. Had Albert Einstein been born in contemporary Baltimore, he too would have faced a bleak future.
The term wasn't known in his day, but Einstein showed many of the traits of dyslexia, or difficulty learning to read. The same was true of Thomas Edison and Winston Churchill.
Muscular Dystrophy, emotional problems, dyslexia -- these are the kinds of conditions that qualify pupils for special education. They are not reasons to deprive a child of a future. Too often, however, "special education" does just that.
Earlier this month, Students First, a group advocating reforms in Baltimore City Public Schools, issued a grim assessment of the system's special education programs. Nine years after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the city's special education students, little has changed.
Mindy Mintz, director of Students First, recounts a meeting she attended within the past year to assess the progress of twins who were having difficulties learning to read.
The lack of a coherent plan for these youngsters and the unconcealed contempt of some of the teachers for these 8-year-old "failures" sent her home so dispirited she wondered how she could carry on the crusade.
If one meeting can leave a committed advocate that depressed, imagine how parents and students must feel if they encounter such treatment every day.
Something is very wrong with special education in Baltimore's public schools, but the problem doesn't seem to be lack of money. As the Students First report details, in 1991-92 city schools spent $122 million on special education instruction. Only about $50 million of that came from state and federal funds designated for special education, with the rest allocated from the general budget.
That figure doesn't reflect the cost of the city's policies of segregating these students. Rather than being taught with their friends in neighborhood schools, about 3,200 of the city's 17,000 special education students are transported on yellow buses to other schools.
"I'm not taking that cheese bus," is a common retort from students when they learn they are being assigned to separate classrooms in special schools.
The "cheese bus" is part of the special education stigma -- a stigma that doesn't come cheap. The city spends $4,000 per student for this transportation, a figure not included in the $122 million instructional budget. The percentage of the city's special education students who are segregated from other students is twice the statewide average.
But separating these students doesn't produce better results. Students taught in segregated settings have higher absentee, suspension and drop-out rates than students who are not separated from their peers -- perhaps because "instruction" sometimes consists of parking them in front of television sets.
There are ample statistics to support the charge that special education has become a dumping ground for the city schools, a way to cleanse regular classrooms of any student who proves difficult to teach.
And there are plenty of targets for finger pointing -- from the teacher union's outdated "us-them" attitudes, through the lethargic bureaucracy spawned by special education funds, and to to the superintendent. Dr. Walter Amprey, superintendent of the city schools, talks persuasively about the need for new attitudes and for teachers and principals to have more accountability. But we don't hear much about consequences for failure.
No teacher should ever be allowed to say, "I taught, but the student didn't learn." If the student didn't learn, no teaching occurred -- period.
But blaming teachers for incompetence isn't sufficient either. Conscientious and capable teachers are human too. Unless they get the training, support and resources they need, they are vulnerable to the burn-out and cynicism that can undermine any reform effort. Or they will leave for private schools where, despite lower salaries, they are allowed to be effective.
Reform is long overdue. This city simply cannot afford to fail to educate so many students.
Einstein had a future. So should students in Baltimore, regardless of "disability."
Sara Engram is editorial-page director for The Evening Sun.