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John Kline’s Thoughtless Support for Subsidizing Special Ed Ghettos: House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline’s actions are often contradictory to his proclamations of wanting to scale back the federal role in education. One need only look at the recently marked-up Student Success Act, which essentially reverts the federal role back to the bad old days of just ladling Title I, II, and VII funding to states and districts without any sort of accountability for student or teacher performance, to realize that the House Republican hardly merits any support from anyone much less movement conservatives.

Another example came this week as he issued a letter to his House Republican counterparts on the appropriations committee pushing  for the end of President Barack Obama’s competitive grant programs such as Race to the Top, which actually require states and districts to implement reforms. While decrying those initiatives as being “new and ineffective”, Kline then announced that he was going to demand greater subsidies for what he deems to be worth the dough: The nation’s special education programs. Declared Kline: “We must stop wasting our tax dollars… and instead work toward meeting our basic obligation to support students with disabilities.”

Certainly Kline would be right in insinuating that special ed funding is quite proven. But not in the way he thinks. As Dropout Nation and the few other reformers (notably Jay P. Greene, Schott Foundation researcher Michael Holzman, and former Education Sector analyst Erin Dillon) have pointed out ad nauseam, special ed programs have often been less a place in which kids with cognitive and physical disabilities get high-quality education and more like educational ghettos where traditional districts and schools place kids they feel are too incapable to learn.

Although the percentage of kids landing in special ed declined slightly, from 13.8 percent in 2004-2005 to 13.1 percent in 2009-2010, there are still far too many kids being placed into these ghettos.  This is especially clear when one looks at the actual percentages of students in each special ed category excluding autism and physical disabilities such as visual and orthopedic impairment. Forty-one percent of the nation’s 5.8 million special ed students covered under Part B of the Individuals with Disability Education Act are labeled as suffering from a “specific learning disability”, a vague catch-all that can include anything including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Another seven percent are allegedly emotionally disturbed, which could easily mean that the kids could either be poorly disciplined at home or suffer severe depression. And another two percent are considered developmentally delayed, which could mean that the kids are either cognitively damaged, dyslexic or wasn’t taught to read by their parents. Even mental retardation may not necessarily mean what it seems. What may appear to be mild retardation may actually be struggles with literacy (severe retardation, on the other hand, is generally what it is).

The consequences of these young men and women being placed into special ed when they are actually capable of learning alongside regular ed students is catastrophic. As Dropout Nation noted last December in its analysis of federal special ed data, just 51 percent of 16-to-21 year olds labeled as having a specific learning disability graduate from high school, and only 31 percent of 16-to-21 year-olds labeled emotionally disturbed exit do so.  A child landing in special ed is almost guaranteed to drop into poverty and prison.

Part of the problem lies with the reality that diagnosing learning disabilities outside of severe mental retardation and physical infirmities is a subjective task.  Low levels of literacy and the effects of poor child-rearing can be mistaken for disorders. Young men are particularly vulnerable because their natural rambunctiousness is of great contrast to the more-docile behavior of their female classmates; this also means that young women may be under-diagnosed as learning disabled. The attitudes of teachers and principals also plays a part; Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly noted in his 2007 testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that adults in schools have a tendency to confuse the statistical probability that certain ethnic and gender groups may end up being diagnosed with a learning disability with the ethnic composition with ethnic composition within a disability category; essentially they end up labeling certain groups of students as learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way.

But as much of the driving force in overlabeling kids as special ed case has to do with money. Especially in states in which more money is given to fund special education students than for those in regular ed classes, it is quite likely that districts are simply placing kids in special ed just to garner extra cash. The states that spend the most on special ed students tend to also have higher percentages of students labeled as learning disabled. (The dollars received from Medicaid to fund special ed services also serves as an enticement.) This also plays out in the number of teachers employed in special ed: The average school employed 129 special ed teachers and associated staff for every 1,000 students in 2008-2009, a 10 percent increase over 2000-2001, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s analysisof special ed activity. Districts such as Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, have become brand names in their communities for their capacity to diagnose and provide education (often of dubious quality) to special ed kids. All this, along with  vague definitions of learning disabilities in federal and state laws governing special ed programs, and efforts by some poor families to game the federal Supplemental Security Income program (which the Boston Globe rightly headlined The Other Welfare), has led to more kids being put on the path to economic and social despair.

Yet despite evidence that additional funding for special ed doesn’t make sense, Kline wants to continue to pour more good dollars after bad. Even worse, it will mean even more young men — especially those in districts in Kline’s own backyard such as South Washington County — landing into special ed ghettos. Kline’s stance is not only indefensible from a movement conservative perspective, it can’t be defended as good social, fiscal, or educational policy.

What Kline should be doing  is demanding greater scrutiny of special ed programs, requiring districts to do more to better-identify which students are truly learning disabled from those who need intensive reading remediation and other help. Kline shouldn’t ask for another dime for special ed until it at least meets his own rhetorical standard.

More Questions for Arne Duncan on Civil Rights Data, Special Ed Section One of the few virtues of the U.S. Department of Education’s old civil rights database was that it broke down special ed enrollment by gender as well as race. This allowed researchers and others to look closely at the number of young men being labeled learning disabled and in which categories this was happening.

But now, the civil rights database has all but eviscerated data on gender. One can still get an overall breakdown of special ed placement by gender in the basic school and district search. But you can’t get gender numbers broken down by each special ed category — especially emotional disturbance and developmental delay, the two categories in which young men struggling with reading were often placed. This is shameful. For whatever reason, Department of Education officials have essentially gotten rid of key data that is useful in addressing systemic reform. Sadly, this isn’t surprising: The U.S. Department of Education’s own brief on its civil rights data, which was culled from 7,000 districts with over 3,000 students enrolled, offered little in the way of data on gender and special ed placement.

Dropout Nation is placing a question to the Department of Education’s communications staff to find out what’s going on and why.  As we have said, Arne Duncan has generally done a fine job as Secretary of Education. But this oversight on providing high-quality data is inexcusable.