Where All the Children Are Above Average

In the new my-kid-first world of education, anxious moms like Charissa Stone are demanding pricey special help from their public schools. It's what any good parent would do ... isn't it?

CHARISSA PICKED A TRICKY TIME to go to war over special ed. Prior to the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975—an outgrowth of the civil rights movement—only one in five disabled kids was even enrolled in public school. Many states had laws barring them from classrooms. Carol Steiner, who’s based in Bucks County, began working as an advocate in the ’70s, after her son was identified as learning-disabled. “It was awful,” she says. “Children were being put in little rooms under stairwells, or in portable classrooms that were moved from parking lot to parking lot.” Gradually, organizations like the Learning Disabilities Association and the National Council on Disability worked to bring these kids into society’s mainstream.

Over the years, laws have expanded definitions of “disability” and mandated increased levels of services. But the federal government has never come through with the funding it promised when the EAHCA was passed. And Pennsylvania’s reimbursements to local districts for special-ed costs haven’t risen in years. For school year 2011-’12, Council Rock got just 4.2 percent of its overall budget from the feds—a 45 percent reduction from 2010. The state kicked in 14.8 percent. Local taxes make up a stunning 81 percent of the district’s budget.

And the ranks of special-ed kids keep going up: in Pennsylvania, from 13.4 percent of all students in 2000-’01 to 16.7 ­percent in 2009-’10—a jump of 52,000 kids, and the biggest percentage-point change of any state. What’s behind the rise? One factor is higher survival rates for premature babies, who often have neurological damage; another is changes in how disabilities are diagnosed. Nationwide, over the past decade, the numbers of kids with mental retardation, emotional disturbances and “specific learning disabilities”—a category that includes dyslexia, perceptual disturbances and brain in­jury—have all gone down. But autism diagnoses have quadrupled, while those for the catchall category “otherwise health impaired”—which includes asthma, heart conditions, ADD, ADHD and diabetes—have more than doubled. In the U.S., 13 percent of students are in special ed, but they account for at least 21 percent of all spending, with per-pupil costs roughly double those of regular ed.

With the stigma of a “disabled” label easing, parents are more willing to seek diagnoses. And some conditions seem downright trendy. A social worker at a private school for autistic kids—including students from public schools whose needs outstrip what their districts can provide—says she used to work with emotionally disturbed kids in an underprivileged area: “There was no parental involvement. You couldn’t get them to come in for a meeting. Now I’m in a situation where there’s a ton of parental involvement—some would say too much.” These parents, she says, are educated, wealthy, and all too willing to hire advocates and specialists for IEP meetings.

Under federal law, schools can’t withhold services from disabled children because of cost. The result is a funding bind, as state and federal aid for education continues to constrict. “It’s unbelievably unfair,” says the social worker, “that the federal government set this up so school districts would get reimbursed, but they never did. It’s a really sad situation. And people are very concerned that it’s going to get worse.”

It already has.

IN A SURVEY OF Pennsylvania’s school districts published in April, 58 percent of respondents said they were considering cuts to art and music programs, phys ed, electives and AP courses because of budget shortfalls. Over the summer, Harrisburg School District announced it was eliminating kindergarten, and would charge kids $100 to participate in sports. Chester-Upland jettisoned all art and music; Upper Darby was considering dropping elementary art and music as well as middle-school language and technology classes. Everywhere, teachers and support staff are being laid off. Class sizes are growing. And people blame special ed.

“The costs of special ed eat regular programs,” says Penn’s James Lytle. “Districts end up cutting art or music, and that generates antagonism. Meanwhile, special-ed parents get the districts to pay for all sorts of therapy—ballet lessons, horseback r­iding—that seem extreme.” He tells the story of two local physicians who informed an upscale district they were planning to buy a house there: “They said, ‘We have a s­pecial-ed child, and educating our child costs $250,000 a year. So you’ll have to include that in your budget.’” Each year, New York City’s special-ed program for three- and four-year-olds costs $40,000 per child. You can send a kid to college for less.

Special-ed advocates say exotic, expensive services are the exception. But it only takes one case of dolphin therapy to create an uproar over how “special” special ed should be. Enter the backlash. Last spring, a special-ed advocate glimpsed derogatory text messages the principal of Chester County’s Oxford Area High School sent during a student’s IEP meeting. An investigation uncovered emails to other staffers in which the principal referred to the student as a “psychopath” and compared him to “Hinckley, Booth and Oswald.” (The student, who reportedly has bipolar disorder, had previously been arrested at the school, charged with making terroristic threats and disorderly conduct, put on probation, fined, and ordered to take classes for anger management.) The otherwise popular principal, David Madden, was suspended by the school board, then reinstated after a “Save Dave” campaign by supporters. Commenters on a story about the situation that was posted on the Inquirer’s website exposed the fault lines:

The special ed gravy train (which is for the parents and the parasitic school boards who charge more for them) needs to be DERAILED. KEEP UP THE HONESTY!!!!!

The principal is the only honest person in the bunch. Time to stop coddling the psycho special eds. …

Connie Mohn of the Arc of Chester County, which provides services to the disabled and their families, was in that IEP meeting with Madden. “I was outraged,” she says. “If the principal is bigoted and impatient, that changes the climate for every student. The normal-ed kids don’t get to see adults embracing and valuing kids with disabilities.” Of the 39,000 instances in the nation’s schools in 2009-’10 in which kids were physically restrained or secluded in isolation, 69 percent involved the disabled. And disabled kids are nearly twice as likely to be suspended.

News reports said the family of the Oxford Area High student won a six-figure discrimination settlement. Such high payouts and litigation costs make districts “gun-shy” about stepping on students’ rights, says Lytle. Even some advocates aren’t unsympathetic. “What do you do with that child at Oxford High?” Carol Steiner asks. “The principal has a child who’s ripping up his building, and there’s nowhere to go for help.”

But for Baruch Kintisch of Philadelphia’s Education Law Center, which lobbies for disabled kids, even to raise the question of how to balance the rights of the many with the rights of the few is wrong. “Families with disabilities never get what their children really need,” he says flatly. “They have to put up with getting less. As a result, their children accomplish less in life.”