Nan Austin

What’s so special about special ed? Task force calls for rethinking that answer

Ever read something and think – this is huge! How did I not know this? How did we all not know this?

That was my sense reading the main and side reports created by the Statewide Task Force on Special Education I wrote about in a package of stories that ran this week. What they say is this state’s compliance- and diagnosis-driven process used to help children with disabilities learn is not working.

But change will not come easy. A sizable bureaucracy built on volumes of laws, court cases, regulations and best intentions does not turn on a dime.

Mandates for special education flow from a federal law that provides less than 8 percent of its cost – in California that cost was $10.6 billion in 2012-13. The state picks up much of the rest, but what it pays each district is based on what it spent on special education in the 1990s, notes the task force sub-report on finances.

What that means is funding for these services has no basis in what kids need, only where they live. Large disparities result from this time-warped distribution.

The new state funding formula did away with that “historic” system for regular education, allocating a baseline funding to all kids, plus more money for high numbers of poor children, English learners and foster kids. Special education is not in that mix.

On top of wide disparities in who gets what, there are rules that work against innovation or efficiency, the report notes. Key among those is a maintenance of effort clause in the federal law. Schools cannot spend less than they did last year on special education services for only special education students.

This forces districts to think of educating kids with disabilities separately. It also meant during the recession, when school funding overall was slashed, spending on one group of children could not be cut.

From dollars to discipline, the system has become a separate entity, isolating the children in it as well as the children outside it from social development and academic supports each could offer the other.

Inclusion is not for all kids, or all classes, but there needs to be room within the rules for discussion, new ideas and common-sense solutions.

The three stories have generated feedback, some of which makes clear there are a lot of misconceptions about special education out there.

▪ The first one is that shipping a special education class from one school to another is inclusion. Being part of the classroom wing instead of a portable out by the parking lot brings them closer, but the kids remain in their own class.

Inclusion used to be called mainstreaming. In the most common type of mainstreaming, kids with disabilities would visit a regular class for PE or art. With inclusion, the emphasis changes from time in the class to time being part of the class. Both are about a single plan for a single student.

▪ The second is that all special education provides is a special teacher. Services are basically whatever is needed for children to learn as well as they can at school. Many also get door-to-door transportation.

A kid with a speech impediment might get time with a speech therapist as his or her only special education service. One with asthma might go to an adapted physical education class. A deaf child might have a sign language interpreter.

Kids with more serious disabilities might need help eating. A severely autistic child could be taught in a residential facility. Teens prone to violent outbursts call for more adults around. A paraplegic might need a communication device that registers where his eyes track.

Special education exists to figure out the special cases, figuring out help for each child as an individual. General education is learning to do this to fill the needs of kids without disabilities, reading their scores, providing extra language help and math tutoring based on each child’s situation.

The report lays out priorities and recommendations to serve all children better, but the makeover calls for changing attitudes as much as regulations. It calls for looking past what kids can’t do to focus on what they can and could do.

And it calls for looking past what grown-ups have always done, to what they can and could do.