Many, many thoughtful and concerned people are asking this vital question. Let me set my thoughts –as of right now. I’ll write more about this, of course.
Here’s today’s conversation starter.
Today’s headlines tell us two very critical and disturbing facts about our public schools.
First, that student enrollment is down — across the board, with special declines at kindergarten levels. Parents are not sending their children to school. They are seeking and creating other options for them.
Second, that funding for public education is far down. All those businesses that were forced to close because of the pandemic, all the stay-at-home orders are leading to less tax revenue — in fact, many businesses are, instead of contributing to the general funds, receiving funds from public sources. As a result, funding for public schools is less available. And… pre-pandemic, there was already some movement toward less support for public schools CITE! For all children.
So in this time of turmoil, what is happening in special education? Special education is the federal program for students with disabilities that started in 1975 at the federal level with the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Today, that law provides services for some 14% of US students. The costs? It’s hard to estimate, as, to date, Congress has not demanded an accounting. So, by estimates, the costs for special education services are around 21% of school budgets and for educating students with disabilities — accounting for both the general and special education services they receive –are estimated at 40% of school budgets. Think about that!
Yet, even in these dire times, it appears that special education lawsuits continue and that bureaucratic requirements have not budged. A brief discussion with a data analyst revealed that nothing has changed — the same numbers are still being crunched as in pre-pandemic days. As well, my quick informal inquiry about the two types of lawsuits that are typically being brought now illustrates for me the essence of our overwhelming challenge: Whither special education after the pandemic?
The first type of lawsuit grows out of the reality that many school districts now serve only the neediest students in person — while keeping most students are remote. Not surprisingly, parents of children with milder needs are bringing claims to have their child in school also — claiming that the child is more disabled than the district had determined.
The second type of lawsuit concerns compensatory education — the lawsuits we’ve been expecting. Such lawsuits attempt to make up for lost services and lost skills and knowledge during the pandemic. It is clear beyond doubt that many students with disabilities have suffered learning loss and that many services were not provided. Undoubtedly true. Therefore, these are generally claims that will prevail!
But, a fact overlooked too often in our discussions about special education, is that such types of loss are also true for many general education students, especially poor, non-English speakers, homeless, etc. Yet, only students with IEPs are entitled by law to compensatory education. Phyllis Wolfram, the executive director of CASE — the Council of Administrators of Special Education — warns that if we pay all compensatory services that may be owed to students with disabilities, “It would break the system of public education.” Think about that! Is that what we want for any or all of our children?
What is the essence I cited above? Special education, the law of rights through the labeling of a small group of students as entitled under that law — can expect that group to ever expand until the system breaks down. As I see it, we are there now.
In many ways, the law of good intentions has grown beyond recognition since 1975 — and become ever more expansive in terms of the student labels that it now includes, costly, complex — and I daresay, intrusive on the continued effective functioning for our schools for all students.
What to do instead? I suggest we return to a sensible program by acknowledging the obvious. Even during this pandemic, many school districts acknowledged that there are in essence, two groups of students with disabilities –those with mild/moderate needs (who make up 80–90% of the students covered by this law, and those with profound/severe needs (who make up 10–20% of the students covered by this law). Schools have started to serve this latter, smaller group in person. This division also tracks the 2017 Supreme Court decision, Endrew F. v Douglas County. We do have two distinct groups of students with disabilities — now served under this one law. The fit is not great. We need to do something about that!
I believe that we should consider that the vast majority of students with disabilities with mild and moderate needs, and general education students, need schools to more than ever — provide better general education. Better teaching. More focused lessons. Personalized as needed. These students need education more than they need “special” education.
Luckily, we have some superb models. Please check out competency based education, as practiced in Westminster Colorado. — Where Education is Personal. https://www.westminsterpublicschools.org/cbswps. And see, in general, the Aurora Institute. https://aurora-institute.org/our-work/competencyworks/competency-based-education/
Another model is the reading contract — whereby schools promise to get everyone to read and to keep at it until success is achieved. Please check out Nate Levenson’s work and his new book, Six Shifts to Improve Special Education. Since most students with mild or moderate disabilities enter the system because they did not learn to read, this approach is promising. Be direct. Teach reading!
There are many other promising models and fabulous professionals working across our nation for all students. They need our support. As I see it, the special education law should no longer include these students as the system has become dysfunctional — and is not even helpful for the students it seeks to help. See, for example, the fact that labeling a student in order to serve him — is not helpful — in fact, damaging to many. It’s time for them, as well as all students to get the best general education services possible. See, for example, Kalman Hettleman’s writings. https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-op-0326-special-education-20190320-story.html
For the 10–20% of students with severe or profound needs — yes, our society owes them an appropriate education. Perhaps a task force of all stakeholders can develop a better way forward — that focuses on appropriate education more than compliance or legal procedures.
If we don’t fix this, I see our public schools imperiled. We’ll see more parents exit. We’ll see less public support for public education. Already, those trends have started. Ultimately, my fear is that broken policies that keep on keeping on and don’t focus on ALL students will leave our public schools evermore for the have nots. Such a development would be tragic — as public education is the backbone of our democratic republic. We need a new model that will make the current one obsolete, to quote Buckminster Fuller. I’ve set out one controversial path. What is your path?
As a passionate supporter of public education, I see the pandemic as the opportunity to finally fix our very broken system and build schools that can work for all students. Our nation needs that now more than ever.
After the pandemic: whither special education? What do you think? Your thoughts? Your plan? Your suggestion? I’d love to hear!
This was originally posted on Medium