Certainly no one should have expected yesterday’s House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing to spend any serious time on the Obama Administration’s proposed education budget for next fiscal year. After all, it is an election year, and, given that neither House Republicans nor the administration want to give the other a political victory, sensible policymaking wasn’t going to happen.

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2But yesterday’s hearing did once again expose House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline’s rather perplexing concern about increasing federal funding for the nation’s special education ghettos. It isn’t just because it runs at odds to his declarations of wanting to reduce education spending as well as return federal education policy back to the bad old days before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and its accountability provisions. Once again, Kline’s push to spend more money on special ed serves as a reminder that it is time to stop pouring money into programs that do little more than condemn the futures of children to the social abyss.

Certainly Kline’s penchant for taking mutually contradictory positions on federal education spending is nothing new. Since taking over Education and the Workforce after the Republicans regained control of the House three years ago, Kline has accused the Obama Administration of wastefully spending money on education and at the same time, pushed to end competitive grant programs such as Race to the Top, which actually forces states and districts to implement reforms and improve student achievement.

But nothing typifies Kline’s lack of cogent thinking on federal education spending — or about advancing systemic reform altogether — than his continuous push for increasing federal special ed spending. Just before the hearing began, Kline issued a statement criticizing the Obama Administration for not “prioritizing” (read: increase) funding for special ed programs. Kline was particularly displeased with the administration for only devoting $100 million to special ed funding through another competitive grant program focused on improving student achievement instead of handing out those dollars through the old-school formula approach he favors. As a result of Kline’s criticism, a good portion of the already-useless hearing devolved into a pointless battle between House Democrats such as outgoing Ranking Member George Miller — who pointed out that Kline never bothered to agree to Miller’s request (and that of other Democrats) to hold a vote on increasing special ed subsidies — and Kline’s fellow Republicans, who defended their overlord.

Kline’s support for special ed isn’t shocking. After all, his Minnesota district includes school systems such as Wabasha-Kellogg, where 11 percent of students are considered disabled, and the Goodhue County Education District, which only educates kids in special ed ghettos. Kline is looking to bring home more federal cash to his key constituents. But in the process of pushing for more special ed cash for traditional districts in his backyard (and those in the districts of his fellow Republicans), Kline fails to realize these two Kline inconvenient facts: That special ed ghettos are little more than way-stations for districts and schools to place kids they feel are too incapable to learn. And that pouring more federal money into special ed will do little more than put even more children onto the path to economic and social despair.

While the percentage of kids landing in special ed declined slightly, from 14 percent in 2004-2005 to 13 percent in 2011-2012, there are still far too many kids being placed into these ghettos. This is especially clear when you look at the percentages of children labeled as special ed who don’t either suffer from true cognitive disorders such as autism and physical disabilities such as blindness.

Forty percent of kids of the 5.8 million kids aged 6-to-21 covered under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities 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 six percent are supposedly emotionally disturbed, which could easily mean that the kids could either be poorly disciplined at home or suffer severe depression, both of which can be dealt with by schools if teachers are properly trained to do so. Two percent of kids in special ed are considered developmentally delayed, another catch-all term that can either mean they suffer from some cognitive damage or are just functionally illiterate. As for the seven percent of special ed kids deemed mentally retarded (or, as the federal government calls it, intellectually disabled)? In many cases, what may appear to be mild retardation may actually be struggles with literacy. Even children with autism and physical disabilities are capable of learning if provided high-quality teaching, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula, and some help.

No matter which children land in special ed ghettos, the consequences on their lives and their futures, in light of the fact that they are capable of learning, are devastating.


Children in special ed such as Gary Reige of Cottage Grove, Minn., (with his mother, Christine, demonstrating how he was restrained by teachers) are often subjected to what can only be called criminal abuse. Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Just 40 percent of 14-to-21 year olds leaving special ed ghettos graduated with a diploma in 2011-2012, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of U.S Department of Education data. While the graduation rate is six percentage points higher than the number graduating five years earlier, it still means that far too many kids are trapped in special ed and end up on the path to despair. Even fewer left special ed kids escaped into regular classrooms. Just 10 percent left the ghettos for regular classrooms, just two percentage points higher than levels five years ago. But the numbers get worse once you look closely at specific categories: Just 44 percent of 14-to-21 year olds labeled as having specific learning disabilities left special ed with a high school diploma in 2011-2012. That’s 18 percentage points lower than the 62 percent graduation rate for children with autism.

But it isn’t just about low graduation rates. A special ed child could easily end up being subjected to such barbaric forms of discipline such as seclusion (or what prison guards would call solitary confinement) and being tied down. Special kids made up 58 percent of all kids put into seclusion and 75 percent of all kids held in restraints in 2011-2o12, even though they account for just an eighth of all students, according to the Department of Education. In some cases, such as that in the Middleton district in Connecticut (now under federal investigation), where it was revealed last year that teachers were shuffling kids into so-called “scream rooms”, the consequences are emotionally damage to the children subjected to the barbarity. In other cases, kids lose their lives. Nine 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.

Even when special ed kids aren’t being subjected to what can be best called criminal abuse, they are more-likely than their peers to be subjected to the harshest forms of traditional school discipline. The out-of-school suspension rate for special ed students was 13 percent in 2011-2012, more than double the already abysmal rate for the nation’s students overall. Special ed kids are also more-likely to end up in the nation’s juvenile jails, where they are likely to be subjected to even more abuse. Kids in special ed made up a quarter of all kids arrested or referred to law enforcement in 2012-2013, despite making up an eighth of all students in elementary and secondary schools.

Families have few choices once their kids are placed into special ed. Although IDEA 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. While children in special ed are supposed to be re-evaluated every three years, this rarely happens. Only the few families with the financial and emotional wherewithal to challenge districts on implementing IEPs ever succeed — and even fewer are successful in getting their kids out of these ghettos.

Why do so many kids end up in special ed ghettos? One reason lies with the fact that diagnosing learning disabilities outside of severe mental retardation, physical infirmities, and autism 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. As Reid Lyon determined in 1997, most black boys landed in special education because they were struggling with their literacy.

Driving such subjective diagnoses are the attitudes of teachers and principals. As Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly noted in his 2007 testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, 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 special ed because they think they are destined to end up that way. This isn’t surprising. The belief among adults in schools that some kids are going to be troublemakers is why far too many young men — especially young black men — are suspended from school.

Then there is the role that federal and state special aid subsidies (along with Medicaid dollars) play in the overlabeling of kids as special ed cases. 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. 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 2011 analysis of special ed activity. The pursuit of special ed lucre, 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, has led to more kids being condemned to dropping out.

Considering the damage wrought by special ed, both upon the lives of children and on the nation as a whole, pouring more federal money into those programs makes no sense at all. If anything, by continued push for increasing special ed subsidies, Kline essentially supports condemning the futures of more young men and women to poverty and prison. And that is intellectually indefensible and morally reprehensible.

What Kline should do is support the Obama Administration’s plan for using competitive grants to reform special ed — and demand that the approach is applied to every federal dollar currently poured into those ghettos. Such a step, along with applying stronger accountability measures to the programs and requiring districts to use Response to Intervention programs to separate illiterate kids from those truly in need of special ed, would help keep more kids on the path to lifelong success. Kline should also support expanding school choice for families of special ed kids by voucherizing at least some of those dollars. That would allow families of special ed kids to escape traditional districts and put their kids into private and charter schools that take more-sensible (and non-special ed) approaches to helping kids learn.

But Kline’s unwillingness to push for the overhaul of special ed isn’t just his fault alone. While Rep. Miller, a co-author of the No Child Left Behind Act, deserves much in the way of accolades for advancing systemic reform, he must take responsibility for being as willfully ignorant about special ed as his Republican colleague. Same is true for Miller’s Democrat colleagues on the education committee, who are more-concerned with their allegiances to districts and teachers’ unions than to building brighter futures for kids.

Then there is the school reform movement, which has been unwilling to tackle this aspect of the nation’s education crisis. Save for Jay P. Greene (when he’s not going on his anti-Common Core rants), former Education Sector analyst Erin Dillon (now with the Massachusetts Department of Education), the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (when it finds time), and Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Michael Holzman, school reformers have largely ignored special ed. You can dare say if that more reformers, especially those within the conservative movement such as American Enterprise Institute honcho Rick Hess, gave special ed more mind, both Kline and Miller would do more to stop pouring good money into ghettos that do nothing but harm to the kids stuck in them. School reformers can’t claim to want to help all children succeed and yet ignore the very children harmed the most by the failed policies and practices of American public education.

Kline could have used yesterday’s hearing to have a serious conversation about how to keep our kids out of special ed ghettos. Instead, he engaged in thoughtless posturing. He should hold his head down in shame.