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Special-ed funding isn't fair to all students System needs reforms that benefit everyone

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Imagine a school system in which each child is entitled to an individualized education plan that prescribes whatever services are necessary to meet his or her unique needs. Imagine, too, that the school system is legally mandated to fund the plan, no excuses accepted.

Impossible, you would think, except perhaps in an elite private school or very affluent public school. Certainly it would seem a fantasy for poor urban districts like Baltimore City. Wrong. Such a system exists in all public school systems across the country, even the poorest.

But here's the rub: The only children entitled to such extensive rights are those found to be disabled under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

Still, don't we all want the best education plan possible for children with physical, mental and learning disabilities? But suppose a different question was asked: Should special-education students receive much more costly services than other students, many of whom are equally disadvantaged?

This, tragically, is what is happening. For at least two decades, the federal law has been strictly enforced as a result of lawsuits brought by advocates for children with disabilities, particularly in large cities. The adverse consequences for regular students have been severe.

First, school systems have been robbing regular students to pay for special-education students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, special-education per-pupil spending is more than double the regular education amount, and between 1977 and 1994, special-education enrollment soared 46 percent nationally (an increase of nearly 2 million students) while total enrollment decreased 2 percent.

The Baltimore City school system has been embroiled in a court battle over special education since 1984. Last year, the system's total enrollment was 108,110 - 18,859 of whom are special-education students. Of the system's $661 million budget, million was spent on special education. This means that one-third of the system's budget was spent on just 17 percent of its students.

The equity argument might be different if most special-ed students had profound mental retardation, autism or vision, hearing and orthopedic impairments. Yet state school officials report that only 15 percent of special-ed children (of a total of 104,630) fall into these classifications. By contrast, 42 percent are classified as having specific learning disabilities (LD), 31 percent with speech or language impairments and 8 percent with emotional disturbances.

The number of LD children dramatically increased across th country from about 1 million in 1977 to 2.4 million in 1994, according to the U.S. Department of Education. At the same time, many respected researchers discredit the validity of most LD diagnoses.

LD is supposed to be diagnosed primarily by a "severe discrepancy" between academic achievement and measures, such as IQ of intellectual ability. But Louise Spear-Swerling and Robert J. Sternberg, in their noted book, "Off Track - When Poor Readers Become 'Learning Disabled'," find "little evidence that children categorized as having a reading disability differ substantially from poor readers not labeled as learning or reading disabled."

Arbitrary lines are often drawn between children - particularly low-income children with developmental delays and bad behavior - who get "dumped" into special education and those who don't. Educators in the Baltimore area say privately that most children classified as LD don't meet the legal standard.

The interests of special-ed students also are given preference in the pressure to mainstream children with profound disabilities into the regular classroom. But inclusionists tend to go too far, too fast, sparking opposition from parents of special-ed students who fight to maintain separate-but-superior placements. Several years ago, then-Baltimore County Superintendent Stuart Berger got shot down in the cross-fire over inclusion.

Even if inclusion appears best for some special-ed students, the impact on regular students and teachers is often harmful. Special-ed dollars are supposed to follow the student and provide regular classroom teachers with helpers. But a recent article in Education Week reported school officials and researchers saying: "Too often ... disabled students are merely moved into classrooms without support services or any sort of training for their general education teachers." These problems are most acute in urban schools where class sizes are huge and the average student requires special attention.

Meanwhile, school systems are overburdened by draconian court-imposed procedures intended to achieve technical compliance with Byzantine federal regulations.

In Baltimore City, compliance audits of individual special-ed cases involve 193 checklist items. If a single violation is found in a single file, every special-ed file in that school must be audited.

Special education receives such unchallenged separate-but-superior status because no one wants to be perceived as insensitive to the needs of children with true disabilities - least of all federal and state legislators who fear hearing rooms filled with wheelchairs, blind and deaf children and anguished parents. Large numbers of children with disabilities cross economic class lines so the special-ed lobby surpasses in political clout other public school interest groups.

No wonder special education is the mother of all unfunded mandates, with even conservatives pretending not to notice. When the federal law originated in 1975, Congress set 40 percent as the targeted federal funding share. But the current share is about 8 percent. States, in turn, have enacted parallel mandates and dumped much of the unfunded mandate on local governments.

The Center for Special Education Finance recently reported that Maryland, among 24 states studied, was second from the bottom in the state share of total special-ed funding and its share was less than half the national average.

What is to be done? Some states are moving to cap special-e funds and there is talk of narrowing the learning disabled classification. But regular education should be leveled up, not special education brought down, especially in poor urban schools. No matter how arbitrary the LD diagnosis, it removes troublesome youngsters from the regular classroom; if they remain and nothing else changes - like class size, curriculum and remedial interventions - all students will suffer.

Reform of special education isn't possible, then, without reforming regular education. Each child not meeting high academic standards, Swerling and Sternberg say, requires "an effective, individually tailored instructional program." And this in turn demands, as Dorothy Kerzner Lipsky and Alan Gartner put it in their book, "Inclusion and School Reform," a "single, unitary funding system which supports the varied learning needs and abilities of all students."

Stated another way, the real problem with special education is that not all children get similar rights. Special-ed advocates must broaden their vision and policy-makers must have the courage to balance the well-being of special-ed students with broader education reforms that treat all children as special.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant who has serve as Maryland's secretary of human resources, a Baltimore school board member and director of a nationally recognized dropout prevention program.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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