There are plenty of reasons to not be fond of sequestration, the process by which Congress and President Barack Obama have abandoned their responsibilities to budget sensibly (and make hard choices) by allowing for automatic five percent budget cuts of federal spending outside of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The fact that the three biggest line items in the federal budget — and the ones that are the biggest culprits of the nation’s long-term fiscal woes — is absolutely irresponsible; it is high time the administration, Senate Democrats, and House Republicans actually tell the public (including Baby Boomers) that it is time to cut Social Security subsidies. Add in the cuts in federal Impact Aid to traditional districts that don’t have property taxes upon which to derive replacement dollars (because their boundaries include military bases and other federal property exempt from taxation) — which, unlike other federal education subsidies, isn’t forward-funded and thus, has an immediate impact on districts that year — and one can only shake their head at the madness.

spedghettoThat said, sequestration could have one potential benefit. This lies in forcing districts to stop relegating children — including young men of all races — they deem unworthy of high-quality education to the nation’s special ed ghettos. As Atlantic Monthly contributor Laura McKenna notes this week, sequestration has triggered a $644 million reduction in the inflation-adjusted increase in federal special ed subsidies.  While there may be a possibility of those special ed subsidy reductions being scaled back once the Senate and the House of Representatives come together on a temporary spending plan for the rest of the 2012-2013 fiscal year (especially given House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline’s efforts to increase special ed subsidies), such reductions will likely continue so long as a permanent budget for the following fiscal year isn’t put in place. As a result, declares McKenna, districts “could be reluctant to classify kids with less severe disabilities if they foresee cuts for these programs

Certainly this could be possible. But as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute pointed out in its 2011 report on special ed funding, states are the most-important drivers in both special ed funding and how districts determine whether children are diagnosed as learning disabled. 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. States can even increase the dollars they devote to special ed just to offset those reductions, while districts can already plan for them before they come into effect during the start of the next school year. So it is questionable that the reduction in the inflation-adjusted increase in federal special ed subsidies will truly affect what districts do on the special ed front one way of the other.

But it would be nice if did lead to fewer kids being placed into special ed ghettos. Why? As Dropout Nation has noted since its inception, far too many kids are being diagnosed as special ed when many of their issues are due to illiteracy. 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. 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, according to Dropout Nation‘s 2011 analysis of federal data. While some kids condemned to special ed ghettos manage to escape the damage and fulfill their potential, most children labeled learning disabled never do. Even worse, while in school, special ed kids can end up being placed in settings in which barbaric discipline techniques such as placing kids into so-called seclusion rooms (or, as convicts 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. For some kids, such as 13-year-old Jonathan King, who committed suicide nine years ago, after being subjected him to such abuse, the consequences of special ed can be deadly.

The enticement of state and federal special ed dollars (along with that of Medicaid) for districts, especially those in big cities, is one reason why so many kids end up being overdiagnosed as learning disabled; districts get more dollars per student for special ed kids than they do for kids in traditional classrooms. Another 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.

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 2007 testimony before 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 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 is by design: Special ed is part of the rationing of education long touted by traditionalists (and sadly, even some reformers who should know better) who argue that only some kids are worthy of high-quality teaching and strong college-preparatory curricula; from the comprehensive high school model to so-called ability tracking (and ability grouping) regimes that seem to be coming back into vogue, to special ed, far too many teachers and school leaders treat kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, in ways that would be considered child abuse if done by parents.

Thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, along with techniques such as Response to Intervention, fewer kids are heading into special ed. Yet the financial enticements of placing kids into those ghettos (along with the ability to simply warehouse kids adults in schools don’t want to teach) remain as enticing as ever. Reducing federal special education subsidies, along with that of states, would further reduce the number of kids being overdiagnosed as learning disabled. If sequestration, along with more-responsible budget-cutting by congressional leaders and the Obama administration, lead to even fewer dollars for special ed ghettos, the better it will be for those kids and their families. It would also have an additional benefit of focusing special ed on actually helping those children who are dealing with real cognitive and low-incidence disabilities in need of more comprehensive educational services. Right now, those kids end up taking it on the chin when they really need help.

There shouldn’t be alarm over sequestration-driven reductions in the increase in federal special ed subsidies. In fact, reformers and others should cheer for even more cuts. Far too many kids are being condemned to special ed ghettos when they are capable of learning. And it is time to reduce the financial incentives for districts to perpetuate educational neglect and malpractice.