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Special Ed Wars Look Different From the Front Lines

Think schools have a financial incentive to label normal kids as disabled? Think again.

by
Laura McKenna

Bio

June 19, 2008 - 12:14 am

We live on a cozy dead-end street in suburban New Jersey with 13 school aged kids. Of those 13 kids, six qualify for special services and have IEPs, including my son.

Why are nearly 50% of the kids on our block receiving special services from the public schools? Greg Forster and Jay Greene think they have the answer.

On June 16th, Forster and Greene asserted in a PJM article that “millions of students may have been labeled as “disabled” and placed into special education when they didn’t really have a disability”. They believe that these kids have been given this label because the school districts want the federal money. The kids have fallen behind in the classroom, not because of a learning disability, but because they have been harmed by bad teachers.

Clearly, it’s not beneficial to incorrectly smack the “disabled” label on kids, if they really have no cognitive, neurological, or behavioral disability. However, I am not convinced that the mislabeling of special needs kids is as widespread as Foster and Greene maintain. I also believe that any crackdown will lead to a witch hunt atmosphere that will create a hostile environment for disabled kids, the vast majority of whom really need services. One of those kids is my son. Since he was identified as having special needs when he was 2-1/2, I am no longer just an academic who studies education policy from the ivory tower, but a parent on the front lines of the special education wars.

Foster and Greene note the sharp uptick in the number of special needs kids that occurred after 1976, when federal special education laws went into place. Correlation does not prove causation. At this same time, the medical community began to more clearly identify learning disabilities. Aspergers’ Syndrome only became a distinct diagnosis in 1992. Dyslexia was only more fully understood after research that emerged in the 80s and 90s. Attention Deficit only became an official disorder in 1980.

These diagnoses cause real problems in education. Many of us can think back to our own childhoods and remember the kids who were ostracized, lonely, strange, smelly, weird, hyper, and angry. Today, those kids have a much better shot at life, and at an education because they are getting appropriate services. With help, they are more likely to finish high school and even attend college. They will be able to more fully function in society and provide for themselves, rather than spend a lifetime on welfare.

Anecdotally, I haven’t seen a single kid in my kid’s special needs classrooms that I thought should not be there. In fact, after having compulsively reading every article and book on neurological disabilities, I see undiagnosed kids (and adults) all the time.

The identification of and intervention for special needs children has increased also because our society expects more kids to finish high school and attend college than it did a generation ago. There are fewer manual labor jobs that provide a middle class income for people who can’t read. Success in school is more important to basic survival than ever before.

Foster and Greene maintain that schools have a financial incentive to label kids as learning disabled. In fact, schools actually have a disincentive to diagnose kids. The money that they receive from the federal government is a fraction of the money that they actually spend on special education. The federal government only pays for 17% of the expenses for special education. State and local governments must pick up the rest of the tab. In our town, nearly half of the local school budget is devoted to special education.

Local political officials speak publicly about how they don’t want to build more homes in our town, lest a kid with special needs moves in.

Moms from across the country on my special education listserv compare notes daily on their frustration as they try to get their kids the support that they need in order to get an education. Websites, like Wrightslaw, are aimed at helping parents navigate the system, which is designed to resist providing expensive services. Parents spend tens of thousands of dollars of their own money to supplement the services that they receive from the public schools and are not covered by health insurance that are crucial to helping their kids learn.

My son languished in an inadequate program for two years, until a kind administrator took pity on us and sent him to an out-of-district program that was geared to his needs. The progress that he’s made in the past year has been amazing, and he should be mainstreamed in a year. However, this highly effective program is costing the district a fortune, and they are itching to return him to the district where he can receive cheaper (and less effective) services.

Perhaps there are a handful of kids who have been misdiagnosed in the system. Perhaps there are pushy parents in wealthy districts who hope to give their kids an edge by giving them a label. Perhaps there are a few school districts that need to give the kids extra help to make up for a poor general education.

But these numbers are much smaller than Foster and Greene imagine. It would be a huge mistake to crack down on the whole system, because of a few errors. My son and his classmates legitimately need the services they are receiving to become productive members of society.

The disabilities on my block run the full spectrum of modern learning disorders — ADHD, dyslexia, Asperger’s Syndrome, OCD, hearing impairment. Nobody knows exactly why these children have those disabilities – genetics, because they were part of multiple births (which are on the increase) and because we’ve gotten better at understanding why many otherwise smart kids can’t read. Or why a child who can read and do math can’t utter a complete sentence.

In the past, maybe only my son and the deaf boy on our block would have received help. The others would have been left to struggle and drop out. And then what? Welfare? Drugs? Crime?

Foster and Greene incorrectly assume that schools have an incentive to mislabel students.

Talk to any parent who has pleaded with a school system to get speech therapy for her kid, and you’ll get another story entirely.

Laura McKenna is a political science professor who lives in New Jersey. She blogs at 11D.
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