As you already know, one of the key reasons the United Federation of Teachers cites for its opposition to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s effort to expand the number of charter schools in New York State is that the privately-operated public schools serve fewer numbers of kids condemned to special ed than traditional districts. If you only pay attention to the American Federation of Teachers local’s talking points, it is concerned that charters are shortchanging the neediest children by dissuading them from their classrooms.
But as I wrote back in January, the big reason why UFT is so concerned about the dearth of kids in special ed being served by charters has almost everything to do with money. In this case the additional state and federal subsidies collected by the Big Apple for every kid condemned to special ed, which, in turn, flows into the union’s coffers through the dues paid by teachers and paraprofessionals who work in them. At that time, the estimated pull from the state was $1,227.61 based on the data available at the time.
But as a new Dropout Nation analysis of federal data shows, the per-pupil dollars collected by the Big Apple for kids in its special ed ghettos is greater than originally known. Which provides an even better understanding of why UFT is so opposed to the expansion of school choice.
The Big Apple district collected $8,850.81 from the state in 2011-2012 for every one of the 160,134 children condemned to its special ed ghettos, according to data submitted by the district to the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Education. How big a haul is this? The Big Apple collected 55 percent more from the state for each kid in special ed than the $5,715.45 it receives in general aid from the state for all of its students.
The cash flow from special ed gets even better once the federal subsidies are added in. New York City collected $2,090.39 in special ed subsidies from the federal government for every kid in its ghettos in 2011-2012. This is 144 percent more than the $856.58 per pupil in Title 1 dollars the district collects from the federal government for each child it serves.
Put altogether, the Big Apple collects $17,513.23 in state and federal subsidies (not including other subsidies and the city’s tax dollars) for every kid condemned into its special ed ghettos. This is nearly three times the $6,572.03 the district collects for kids in regular classrooms (not including other subsidies and the district’s own tax dollars).
Such additional dollars can help the Big Apple hire additional teachers and staff to work in special ed ghettos — and this is good for UFT. As I noted back in January, UFT may generate $14,154.60 per 186 teachers and paraprofessionals (based on an equal number of 93 of each) every month. This is just on the conservative side; after all, the Big Apple likely hires more than teachers and paraprofessionals than the statewide average of 186 per 1,000 students (which is already greater than the national average of 129 per 1,000). Any reduction in the number of kids in special ed ghettos means a reduction in money that the Big Apple can use to keep teachers on payrolls — and, in turn, means fewer dues-paying members for the union.
This is certainly a possibility if Cuomo successfully convinces his colleagues in Albany to allow more charters to open. After all, charters are less-likely to label kids as special ed cases than the traditional district in large part because simply educate kids who would otherwise be labeled as such as regular students as they often should be. One of the reasons why? Because New York City, like other traditional districts, often place kids into special ed for reasons other than actual cognitive and physical disabilities.
As you can already see, one reason is financial, with the district collecting far more money for kids in special ed than their peers in regular classrooms. Another culprit lies with the reality that diagnosing learning disabilities other than blindness or low-incidence disabilities such as severe cerebral palsy can be a guessing game. Illiteracy, for example, can be mistaken for mental retardation or developmental delays. Such mistakes in diagnosis (along with cultures in schools that don’t work out for active young men of all backgrounds) explain overdiagnosis of kids as suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is so rampant. This is problematic because at least two out of every five in kids in special ed are either labeled mentally retarded, developmentally delayed, emotionally disturbed or with a specific learning disability, all categories subject to mistaken diagnosis.
But the biggest problem lies with adults in New York City’s schools and their belief that only some kids are worthy of high-quality education. This is a group that includes some of the most-ardent traditionalists in the UFT’s own rank-and-file. As education scholars such as Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly have pointed out, adults in schools label certain groups of students as learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way. As studies such as one by a team led by Tobias Rausch of Germany’s Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg show, teachers and school leaders can end up favoring kids who look like them or share their personality traits; those kids who don’t can end up either in special ed ghettos, targeted for harsh school discipline, or subjected to other forms of educational neglect and malpractice.
Considering the damage that comes from condemning kids to special ed — especially lower high school graduation rates and greater instances of being subjected to the harshest school discipline — UFT should be doing all it can to help reduce the percentage of kids condemned to the Big Apple’s special ed ghettos. This includes championing the expansion of charter and other forms of choice, as well as pushing for a reduction in special ed subsidies that can lead districts such as New York City to focus its special ed efforts on kids truly in need of help.
But given its financial concerns, as well as the sorry record of its now-partly shuttered charter school in handling students in special ed, no one should expect anything less than utter disdain for the futures of children. For UFT, condemning kids to despair is just the cost of doing business.