Let me start by offending somebody right away when I say I'm a liberal from the Bill Clinton school of pragmatism -- like when Clinton decided to take on long overdue welfare reform.
Some may argue otherwise, but there were definite perverse incentives meant to help people, but fostered generational dependency. Of course there are/were criticisms of the Clinton reforms but Clinton and company operated from the heart as well as the bottom line in making the changes.
So why I am sounding so defensive? Because I/m going to share my reaction to Sarah Palin's first (and probably only) policy statement which happens to be on special education which given her Down's Syndrome baby, earns her special and personal interest. I should state my biological pedigree and progeny here. Both my sons are in college and neither had major learning problems. But I've been evaluating and treating learning disabled children for thirty years and Palin's chicken in every pot political promise has me worried.
Palin wants to guarantee to every qualified family of a special-needs child the option to attend a private school at the school district's expense. She intends to do this by getting the federal government to fully fund its obligation to special education which in the twenty plus years of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act) the government has never done. Currently the federal government is contributing forty percent of its share of the funding for special education nationally.
The federal government mandates that every child should receive the optimal individualized educational plan to meet his/her needs. However, since the government has never fully funded these mandates, an adversarial relationship has developed between parents who want these services paid for (sometimes at private settings) and school districts who are left responsible, but have to draw from the general classroom funds to pay for the special services.
Fifteen years ago, I subtitled a chapter of my book, Running on Ritalin, that dealt with special education, "The Snake Eats Its Tail." I already envisioned a conundrum that in order to fund increasing numbers of ADHD diagnosed children, money meant for the general classroom would shrink. Inevitably classroom size would grow and those children on the borderline of ADHD or other learning problems would be pushed to flagrant symptomatology because of the relatively decreased attention from the teacher attending to the needs of the larger classroom. As more and more children met diagnostic and special services criteria, classroom size would continue to grow, making more children diagnostic, and so on.
As it turns out, special-needs kids and the demands on school services have grown for this and a variety of other reasons. As Kate Zernicke in the New York Times' article on Palin's promise, mentions in some districts the funds for special-needs children (usually about 15% of the school population) exceeds 50% of the budget. Every special education director and school superintendent, I know, while sincerely caring about special-needs kids' needs and services, forcefully lament that tug on the general education classroom.
Public schooling was the prize given to the middle and lower classes by the American people a bit over a hundred years ago. The idea was that educated children make better citizens and workers. Most would agree that until recently it worked. Now there are so many factors eating away at public education. At the top, the cream of students is often skimmed off to top private schools while at the other end, children with special needs command a growing part of the public budget. Again if these trends continue (and school vouchers are in this mix) the snake will eat its tail, until nothing will attract anyone to attend the general classroom in public school (except its location and cost).
I acknowledge my complete political incorrectness when I add the other phenomenon that galls and will destroy the general ed classroom -- that increasing tendency for families of means to blackmail the "deep pockets" of school districts into paying for residential care for their emotionally disturbed children. Many school districts cave and pay for at least part of the residential care even though the problems are emotional/psychiatric and not primarily educational (which are the ones mandated by IDEA). It is cheaper to settle than to fight a fair-hearing settlement in open court.
So now I've probably offended everyone. Palin's promise is just that. It'll never happen on the short term because there are too many other interests competing for their fair share of the federal dollars (especially with our current fiscal crises) - even if it's legally owed them. I think it's good that Palin has brought up the feds' persistent penury and wheezling on special education funding. However, lawyers are the ones currently making the most money suing and defending schools.
I'm not sure what the answer should be. Some kids need supported small group instruction. Some of it can happen within a smaller general education classroom environment. I'm far less convinced that primarily psychiatrically disturbed kids should be getting the bulk of their services paid for by school districts - yet I know that money must come from somewhere in the society besides just from the family.
Still more and more kids from the middle and upper middle classes have "disorders" these days - not because of "better diagnosis" - or not only because more premies are living longer, as Kate Zernicke suggests. In The Last Normal Child I posit that our WORRY about our children's feelings has ironically led to a growing intolerance of minor differences in children's behavior and school performance. This profound and pervasive cultural phenomenon will not be addressed by teachers, doctors or legislatures. American business and the Supreme Court will ultimately set limits on how much and who will pay for America's different kids.