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As I wrote in my column last week in The American Spectator on Washington, D.C.’s slip slide into corruption, the spate of corruption — including the resignations of two city councilmen and the ongoing federal probe into current Mayor Vincent Gray’s successful campaign to oust predecessor Adrian Fenty — has brought back memories of the days when Marion Barry engaged in the kind of chicanery that nearly sank the District into insolvency. But for the families of the 12,000 children condemned to D.C.’s special ed ghettos (as well as those who suffer real cognitive impairments), the greater outrage lies with the traditional district’s continuing failures in providing them with high-quality education and nurturing cultures of genius.

Fifty-three percent of special ed students aged 16 to 21 left school during the 2009-2010 school year with a high school diploma, while a mere 7.7 percent transferred into traditional classrooms, according to Dropout Nation’s analysis of U.S. Department of Education data. The rest either dropped out, left with some sort of certificate that is useless except to line bird cages, aged out of special ed, or supposedly have “Moved, known to be continuing”. Although those numbers are far better than the 17 percent graduation rate for special ed students back in the 2000-2001 school year — and better than even the national average of 46 percent — it still means that special ed is an economic and social life sentence for kids who get labeled as unable to learn, and for those kids with real developmental disabilities who still deserve something better than the worst.

Little wonder why so many families whose kids are in special ed have become even more outraged after D.C. Public Schools began its effort to move special ed students out of placement in private schools (including those geared for helping special ed kids actually achieve academic success), whose work may be one reason why more kids are actually graduating in the first place. Driven by Mayor Gray’s insistence on slashing the expenses of sending special ed kids to private schools by half within the next two years (it will take on a $110 million tab in 2012-2013) the district is moving half of the 2,204 special ed kids into its traditional schools; the effort is the latest step in a move that began under former D.C. Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee to bring back more special ed kids into the fold and get from under a 15-year-old lawsuit that forced D.C. Public Schools to allow special ed students to attend private schools. But as Lisa Gartner of the Washington Examiner reported earlier this week, the district is still not exactly doing well by special ed kids.

For Bill Emerson, D.C. Public Schools wants him to send his son, Polk, a 19-year-old Polk whose severe disability renders him an 18-month old cognitively, to Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School, an environment clearly not fit for his needs. Other families aren’t even being given options to send their kids to other schools within the traditional district that may better fit for their learning needs, being forced to attend zoned schools that may do little for them educationally or otherwise. Given that the special ed students in private placement account for just a smattering of all students attending D.C. Public Schools (and a fifth of special ed students served by the district), along with the reality that the D.C. district, although improving, is still in turnaround stage, one finds themselves agreeing with those parents that staying out is better than being forced back in.

But the plight of D.C.’s families with children stuck in special ed once again sheds light on one of the most-important reasons why expanding school choice and Parent Power policies (including Parent Trigger laws) are critical to transforming America public education: Far too many kids are condemned to schools and programs that do harm to their futures, while their parents are restricted from playing their well-deserved lead roles in education decision-making. And this is especially the case with special ed.

One of the things that has to always be remembered when it comes to special ed is that families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, have little recourse in keeping their kids out of special ed in the first place. Although the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires districts to gain permission from parents to place their kids into special ed (and negotiate an individualized learning plan if the parents agree to the label), the reality is that most families are forced into special ed through no choice of their own. Parents who don’t agree to a district’s labeling, or think their child needs a different IEP can find themselves facing charges of abuse and neglect. And while children in special ed are supposed to be re-evaluated every three years, this rarely happens.

For districts, special ed ends up becoming a rather sweet deal financially (despite bemoaning the costs publicly) because end up getting more in state and federal per-pupil dollars (as well as opportunities to milk Medicaid subsidies) than they would get for students in regular classrooms. It is one reason why the average school employed 1 10 percent more teachers and staff for special ed in 2008-2009 than in 2000-2001, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s analysis of special ed activity. More importantly, it allows adults in schools to shuffle off those kids — especially young men whose struggles with reading manifest in behavioral issues — who they deem too difficult or unworthy of educating. As Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly noted in his 2007 testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, adults in schools often 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 for the kids and their families, special ed is a life sentence. A special ed child could easily land in a setting in which barbaric discipline techniques such as placing kids into so-called seclusion rooms (or, as prison inmates, would call them, solitary confinement) and tying children down can be the norm. Special ed students made up 70 percent of kids held in restrains during the 2009-2010 even though they account for just an eighth of all students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.  The results can be devastating. Eight years ago, 13-year-old Jonathan King, a student in forced into a school operated by the 14-district Pioneer Regional Education Services Agency in Georgia committed suicide after being subjected him to such abuse; a lawsuit filed by King’s parents against the agency and state officials was dismissed by a state court judge because there was no way for the state to regulate regional education operations and the use of such discipline. The scandalous practices came under scrutiny this year after revelations that teachers at the Middleton district’s Farm Hills Elementary School in Connecticut., were shuffling kids into so-called “scream rooms”; the school and district are now being subject to a U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights probe, while the practices themselves were the subject of a U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing last week. Even when special ed kids aren’t being subjected to those barbaric practices, they are more-likely to be subjected than their peers to more traditional harsh school discipline. The out-of-school suspension rate for special ed students is 13 percent, more than double the already abysmal rate for the nation’s students overall.

Only the few families with either the means or the emotional wherewithal to challenge districts on IEPs — and even which schools their kids should be place, ever succeed. Just one percent of America’s special ed students age 6 to 21 are put into private schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Even fewer are successful in getting their kids out of being placed in special ed ghettos. For every Scott Barry Kaufman, who manages to get out of special ed and become one of the nation’s best-known authorities on gifted and talented education, most of these kids wind up in despair, illiterate, innumerate, and ill-prepared for the adult world. And this includes those very few children who are truly in need of special ed because of low-incidence disabilities that render them cognitively unable to master college preparatory learning still in need of training and deserving of better than abuse.

What happens in special ed isn’t unusual in American public education. Mothers and grandmothers such as Tanya McDowell and Marie Menard either being imprisoned (or merely charged) with the laughable offense of “stealing education”. Poor families are forced to send their kids to dropout factories and failure mills that won’t provide them with the high-quality teaching, and strong, college-preparatory curricula they need. Middle-class families from middle class backgrounds are often denied the information they need to get their kids into Advanced Placement classes and other college preparatory courses. Even when families are given power, education traditionalists — especially affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — work hard to reduce that power; this happened in Connecticut, where the NEA and AFT successfully won the power to determine which parents are allowed to serve on so-called “turnaround committees’ in schools under the state’s new Commissioner’s Network (and in the process, tossing out the parent-controlled governance councils and neutering potential use of the Nutmeg State’s Parent Trigger law). [Dropout Nation will discuss the efforts of Parent Power activists in a special virtual panel session this coming Tuesday, July 24. Register today (Editor's Note: Link has been updated).]

All this happens despite all the evidence — including a study released this month by a team led by Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the role of families in steering kids into science and math courses — that families who are given power and information can help their kids get the education they need for lifelong success. All this happens despite the facts gleaned from two decades of expanding school choice: The only real way that families can really be engaged in schools is if they actually have the ability to actually shape the education their kids receive. And ultimately, this amoral and immoral denial of power and choice to happens in spite of growing evidence that American public education’s policies and practices are serving all children poorly — and kids in special ed even worse.

What Mayor Gray should be doing in D.C. is expanding school choice and Parent Power for all families, especially for those whose students have been relegated to special ed ghettos. This includes allowing more families to seek out private and charter schools that fit the needs of their kids, as well as allowing more intra-district choices. This should also be happening throughout the nation. Expanding school choice efforts such as Florida’s McKay special ed vouchers (along with stronger accountability and transparency for those private and public schools that accept the vouchers) and charter schools (including those serving autistic children) is also important. Enacting Parent Trigger laws, as well as giving parents real power in shaping individualized education plans (and the underlying curricula provided to their kids), is also key. Not only would such efforts help those special ed kids who truly need such services get better care and support, it would even allow for those kids who really don’t belong in special ed (including those caught in the catch-all “specific learning disability” category) get out of ghettos in which they don’t belong.

When we allow families whose kids are the worst-served by American public education to escape failure and even overhaul failing schools, we are also helping all children get the high-quality education they deserve. It is time for special ed families — and all families — to take real power in education.

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