Special Needs Children and Public Education
by Lea Cuniberti-Duran
Raising and educating children with special needs is expensive. That's just a fact.
I have attended many school district budget meetings in which officials blurted to their audience, "We cannot pay for XYZ because of our financial responsibility toward children with special needs: to educate one special needs student can cost the district $100,000 a year." I also hear about how the district has "an unfunded mandate to educate children with special needs, and how this results into an encroachment to the general fund."
As one can imagine this argument is not always well received by parents of typical kids who want a great education for their children, and are lead to believe that "all those quirky kids" are in the way. It is easy to believe the encroachment argument: how can one argue with the fact that our district has to transfer $7M from general fund to the special education department?
The school district's argument has been so effective that a good friend recently confronted my husband and me. She said she couldn't see why the district had to spend so much money to educate special need children. She resented spending $100,000 for a child who will may never be a fully contributing member of our society. Why not spend that money toward the education of all the other children, those who will be able to contribute, go to university, and have a career?
Don’t Be Fooled By the Numbers
Districts use children with special needs the way a magician uses props: as a distraction, a way to divert attention from schools underperforming because of problems that have nothing to do with special needs. Just look at the numbers: Redwood City School District spends about $10,000 per student (according to the latest data released by the district). RCSD is rated a 5 out of 10 based on State and Federal tests results for the school year 2008-09
If we look at districts around the Bay Area that, like Redwood City, are revenue-limit (meaning, they rely heavily on state funding), have the same proportion of students with special needs, YET are rated higher by GreatSchools.net; we will see that these districts spend less money per student. From this we can infer that special needs students are not the reason why school districts underperform:
- Cabrillo Unified (Half Moon Bay)
- Rated 7 out of 10
- Spending per pupil: $7,477
- San Mateo-Foster City
- Rated 7 out of 10
- Spending per pupil: $7,917
- Mountain View
- Rated 7 out of 10
- Spending per pupil: $8,433
- San Francisco
- Rated 7 out of 10
- Spending per pupil: $8,357
- Rated 8 out of 10
- Spending per pupil: $7,203
- Rated 8 out of 10
- Spending per pupil: $7,283
- Walnut Creek
- Rated 10 out of 10
- Spending per pupil: $7,281
A Good Investment
Allowing people with disabilities to reach their full potential is a good investment. With appropriate services and support, people with disabilities can lead full and productive lives. And helping those who may never be fully independent reach their full potential costs taxpayers less than funding 24/7 assistance for the rest of their lives.
We, as society, need to move away from thinking that people with a mental or physical disability cannot be contributing members of society. Just look around in your daily life, and notice some examples of people who have gone and beyond those simple expectations: my children’s occupational therapist who is missing an arm, or a tax accountant who happen to be dyslexic, or one of my personal heroes, Dr. Temple Grandin, PhD, who is a leading expert in livestock management as well as an advocate for the autism community.
Work programs can specialize in employing individuals in areas where they excel, like complex but repetitive tasks that a neurotypical person cannot perform with consistent precision. I was told of a woman with Down syndrome whose job is to prepare all the instruments for the surgeons in a mid-west hospital. Educating and teaching skills to a person with a disability may require extra resources, but it leads to more independence – so it’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s the least expensive approach.
We Are Not Sparta
We, as society, value life, and have laws to protect it. We also value diversity. Long gone is the time of Sparta when people with differences were thrown off a cliff. But in the not-so-distant past, American children with disabilities were taken away from their families and put in institutions, where they were often left in very desperate conditions: with minimal food, clothing and shelter and terrible unhygienic conditions. In 1967, for example, state institutions were homes for almost 200,000 persons with significant disabilities. Some of these institutes still exist, like the NAPA State Hospital outside Sacramento, California which has been investigate by the State as recently as 2005 for abuses and infractions against patients.
The birth of IDEA
“In the 1950s and 1960s, the Federal government, with the strong support and advocacy of family associations, such as The ARC, began to develop and validate practices for children with disabilities and their families. These practices, in turn, laid the foundation for implementing effective programs and services of early intervention and special education in states and localities across the country.” (From the US Department of Education)
This lead to the creation of IDEA (Individual with Disabilities Educational Act), which gives children with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate public education, in the least restrictive environment, with accommodations, modifications and support so that children can access their education. This law benefits ALL children with an IEP, no matter how few services he or she is receiving.
What Has IDEA Accomplished?
A few examples from the US Dept of Education:
- The majority of children with disabilities are now being educated in their neighborhood schools in regular classrooms with their non-disabled peers.
- High school graduation rates and employment rates among youth with disabilities have increased dramatically. For example, graduation rates increased 14 percent from 1984 to 1997.
- Today, post-school employment rates for youth served under IDEA are twice those of older adults with similar disabilities who did not have the benefit of IDEA.
- Post-secondary enrollments among individuals with disabilities receiving IDEA services have also sharply increased, with the percentage of college freshmen reporting disabilities more than tripling since 1978.
In a year like 2010, when schools are squeezed by a state in financial disarray, when budgets and programs are slashed with a hatchet; when the panic feeling of saving money makes people cut corners; special needs children will be the easy target for blaming and the victims of further cuts. As a parent and an advocate for my children, I have pledged to stay involved, informed and calm; attend as many school board meetings as I can, and share information with other parents.
I also pledged to monitor closely the next November election, when we will elect a new governor, a US senator, and, here in San Mateo County, two new state representative (both assemblyman Ruskin and senator Simitian are out of term).
For those of us who want to make a difference, this is the time to get informed, contact the candidates, hear their prospective on issues and flex our political muscles on election day.
I am committed to push further and follow in the footsteps of the parents and advocates before us, who fought for their children to have a more appropriate education and a dignified life.