Why Does Special Ed Exist At All?: The Real Question That GAO (and All of Us) Should Be Asking
As one who has read through previous Government Accountability Office reports knows by now — especially when it comes to anything related to K-12 and the for-profit sector of higher education — the federal agency’s latest report on under-representation of special education students in public charter schools offers more heat than light. Although the GAO determines that charters tend to enroll fewer special ed kids than traditional districts, the fact that charters only enroll three percent fewer special ed students than traditional counterparts on average (a disparity that has been in decline according to the two years of data collected by the agency) means that the gap is essentially meaningless. The fact that the GAO admits it doesn’t have enough data to offer any real conclusions or suggestions also makes the report rather useless.
The GAO’s report also fails to consider three things. The first? That special ed parents are more-likely to send their kids to traditional districts than to charters (even if they aren’t in love with the district’s performance in improving student achievement) because districts tend to be the market leaders of sorts in providing services to those children (and also have the scale needed to serve them). 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. The second, as Alex Hernandez of Think Schools and others have pointed out, is that in states where districts authorize schools, the districts are more likely to withhold special ed dollars from charters because those schools aren’t considered independent districts; this, by the way, also means that in states where special ed services are provided in pooling arrangements with other districts, charters also don’t get the funding and access to those services needed to support special ed students. (As the Center for Reinventing Public Education has shown in a recent Webinar, there are more collaborations between districts and charters on this front, and charters in states such as Indiana have worked together for years to build their own capacity for serving special ed students. But charters still tend to get the proverbial shaft from districts on this front.) And finally, that there is a major paradigm shift that comes with school choice: That families don’t simply just have to attend a school just because it is in the neighborhood. Even if a family of a special ed kid can send him to a charter in the neighborhood, it doesn’t mean they have to as they would in the case of a traditional district school. Choice, by its nature, means that parents will have options to exercise, and it could be the traditional district school, the charter, or the private school five miles away.
But the biggest problem with the GAO report, along with the overall discussion about the low levels of special ed students in charters is the underlying assumption that special ed should exist at all. As Dropout Nation has pointed out ad nauseam, special ed is little more than one of the ghettos of American public education, a way-station for young men and women adults in our schools don’t want to teach.
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. 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.
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. Certainly a smattering of kids labeled special ed managed to escape from those virtual prisons, get into regular classes, and build brighter futures for themselves; this is what happened to New York University scholar Scott Barry Kaufman and A. J. Duffy, the infamous former boss of the American Federation of Teachers’ Los Angeles local. But for nearly everyone else, a special ed diagnosis is equivalent to a life sentence to poverty, prison, and despair.
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. There’s also the money factor. Particularly 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 (including Medicaid dollars). 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 analysis of special ed activity.
Then there is the reality that many adults working in schools condemn children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, with low expectations. As Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly noted in his 2007testimony 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. This amoral, immoral, and anti-intellectual thinking also explains why so many poor and minority kids are steered away from Advanced Placement classes and other strong, comprehensive college preparatory courses, as well as why families often can’t get the information they need to steer their kids to those options. (The last issue is the subject of this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast.)
All this is by design. As with gifted and talented courses and the comprehensive high school model, special ed is a legacy of the early-20th century racialist thinking that only some kids — namely those from white middle class backgrounds — can master and, thus, are deserving of high-quality teaching and curricula. Certainly there are those students with severe cognitive disabilities who may not be able to learn at the same level as their peers who don’t have such issues; but most kids in special ed aren’t struggling with such impediments. These are kids who may need intensive reading remediation or help with their dyslexia or even more-nurturing school environments. What we shouldn’t be doing to them is condemning them to special ed ghettos.
This is where charter schools can come in. Charters shouldn’t be replicating the same failed thinking as traditional district counterparts — and that means ditching special ed ghettos. What they can do and what many have proven to do so far is help those who would otherwise be relegated to the proverbial short buses get on the long buses to economic and social success. And what we should look to charters to do is pioneer new ways of educating those kids who are considered unteachable by traditional counterparts — and push for the end of special ed programs within districts as going concerns.
The GAO report did manage to prove one thing: That we need to push harder for the transformation of American public education. Because we should be working hard to banish special ed ghettos, not expand them to charters.