Why is special education treated like an unwelcomed orphan at every level of government? Nobody acknowledges parenthood and won’t take responsibility. And an orphan makes us sympathetic but uncomfortable. Little IDEA stands alone on the corner, scraped knees and with a black eye. The little guy puts out his thumb to catch a ride on anything that goes by in order to put some life back into his battered body. He tries to masquerade as a regular education kid, trying to hide the things that make him different so that he blends in with the mass of people around him. Passers by admire his spunk and tenacity. Brave little person! Somebody will pick him up from that corner, inquire as to his welfare, get him into the system, maybe even adopt him. But look what he’s learned already- he has street smarts! He’s learned how to steal, how to sneak what he needs, and denies he has any problems at all. He even tells those who ask that he’s fine and on his way home to get cookies and milk from his mom. Special education is that lie.
Another presidential election is coming. We look at the dysfunction of the government and the ridiculous games it plays with human life. And in special education, since 2008, many have asked: When is IDEA going to be reauthorized? Why isn’t special education a topic for political discussion? Why doesn’t anybody hold anybody accountable? This is how I look at it. Since 2008 and the elections in 2010, everybody has focused on the national debt, joblessness, and a way to decrease government expenditures. Entitlements are a major source of anger and worry because entitlements are guarantees of money and services- once you are eligible. IDEA is an entitlement. Both parties say- everything is on the table for analysis and budget cuts. Since IDEA is a sacred cow in the eyes of Congress, it nibbles around the edges because of fear that overt destruction of IDEA would cause political repercussions at election time. So it kills it an inch at a time, hoping that nobody will notice. It has allowed states to decrease what is called “maintenance of effort” so that special ed budgets can be permanently cut at state and local levels. It looks away while Response to Intervention (RTI) takes the place of special education, even though the official position is that this is illegal. The right hand giveth, the left hand taketh away. Children are kept in regular education with wimpy interventions that are guesswork at best and stall tactics at worst. Evaluations have been cut to the bone. We knew how to do comprehensive testing once, but those days are over. Referrals to special education are denied over and over again. There is too much need and too few resources. Staff is being cut everywhere and class size increasing. But unless you have the IDEA entitlement, you cannot ask or argue for any kind of extra service.
This is how it works. In order to be referred for comprehensive evaluation by the child study team, there must be a suspicion of a disability: poor or declining grades, significant developmental delay, delayed speech and/or language, fine or gross motor problems, emotional or social problems, academic difficulties that don’t respond to extra help, an endless list of problems that regular education staff and training are not able to improve. Just giving a diagnosis of ADHD, Autism, or anything else won’t trigger the referral. The child must be in need of educational services in order to warrant referral and individualized, comprehensive testing. All the while, the child is in regular education. Just because the referral was accepted and the testing agreed upon doesn’t mean there is any entitlement. Referral and testing are part of determining whether or not, at the end of the process, there will be an entitlement given to the child for free, individualized services at no cost to the parent. Once all of the testing is back, with additional input from the parents, teachers, and anybody else either side wants to have involved, a meeting is held. This meeting is called The Eligibility Meeting. That is when the decision is made as to whether or not the child meets the legal requirements for the entitlement. Eligibility for the entitlement is met when the information from the testing matches one of the 13 categories of disability. If the school and parent agree that the child is in need of specialized instruction and related services, the next area of dispute will often be the label assigned to best describe what category the testing data matches best. That is where the first dispute frequently occurs relative to the entitlement because there are weighted reimbursement formulas for each category of disability. Everything after that relates to the degree and cost of the entitlement. Hence, IEP disputes, related services disputes, placement disputes. All of these cost money and are part of the entitlement. Today, everything is about the cost and Yes, everything is on the table. You can forget about least restrictive environment. Now it’s LAC: Least Amount of Cost.
Under these circumstances, has it been smart not to have those in Congress mention special education or try and reauthorize IDEA? You betcha! These days, the restraint and seclusion bill that has been discussed for over a year has even had trouble getting passed. There are more children in need of special education services than ever before- simply because there are more children and greater economic disparity than ever. Exactly how bad is it? As I’ve said in past blogs, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is a precursor of special education and has historically been reauthorized before IDEA because it includes an IDEA component. It is a regular education law and not an entitlement. All of the efforts at improving general education have been, in part, an effort to lower the numbers of children in need of special education, as well as improving basic skills and teacher training. But the states have complained that they cannot meet the reading and math requirements established in NCLB. Most agree that NCLB has resulted in teaching to the test and in the loss of creative teaching that encourages students to learn conceptual skills and reasoning. Few, however, have pointed out that NCLB is a basic skills law and was never intended to replace higher level thinking skills. Most students were thought to already have basic skills, the law designed for those who did not. Say it isn’t so, but it turned out that we have dumbed down American education to the point that states could not meet the basic skills requirements of NCLB. So state after state got to their local representative and complained that the law was unfair and penalized their public schools when- bottom line- the low scores weren’t their fault. After more than a year of congressional debate over reauthorizing NCLB ( NOT AN ENTITLEMENT) there was still no agreement as to what should be in it. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, suggested that the feds would consider granting NCLB waivers to states regarding their low test scores as long as they promised to devise a local way of improving student performance. (Haven’t you heard that tune before? About a million times before?) Finally, last week, President Obama officially ordered that waivers would be considered for NCLB because Congress was unable to agree on what should be in the reauthorization. So NCLB has yet to be reauthorized and regular education has returned to the “You Lie and I’ll Swear To It” methodology of the past.
Now think about IDEA. Think about the growing political power of the individual states and how unhappy they have been with IDEA since it was passed in 1975. Loss of maintenance of effort is just the beginning. Almost none of the states have complied with even the procedural requirements, let alone the mandate for individualized programming. We should count our blessings that IDEA has not been reauthorized yet. But it will surely be so after the presidential election. And the new IDEA will not look like the law we have used for so long. Nobody is talking publicly about this, yet it is the most important topic we face. How can special education be changed to make it more efficient, more cost effective, and better for children and family as well as schools? How can we streamline it while not taking away individualized programming? How can we have it equally implemented in the cities, suburbs and rural areas? Is technology the answer?
I have never, ever seen a computer replace a teacher. If this were another discussion we would talk about mirror neurons. But the flat surface of a computer screen is processed differently by our brains. So it was no surprise that test scores stayed stagnant in Chandler, Arizona in the Kyrene School District. It utilized laptops, big interactive screens and software drills. But test scores did not improve. (In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores, Matt Richtel, The New York Times, 9/4/11). Billions are being spent on technology while teachers are being cut. Regular education teachers are asked to be special education teachers. Special education teachers receive little to no training in child development or in many other areas crucial to their success in the classroom. How do we fix it when we can’t afford it? Well, the lunatics have taken over the asylum, so I suggest some militant action. But not until 2012. Then we’ll know better what to do, what is being said, and the lay of the political landscape. Or will we? Meantime, listen for the buzzword…entitlement…entitlement…entitlement…