Special Ed

Special Education remains a promise unfulfilled. It is time to renew our commitment – and ensure the programs and resources necessary to fulfill that commitment.

For most of our nation’s history, children with special needs or disabilities were shunted aside. That started to change in 1975 with the passage of federal legislation guaranteeing children with disabilities the right to “free appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment.”

That landmark legislation, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), is once again up for reauthorization. As arcane and indecipherable as some of the discussion and amendments might be, it is important that parents and educators committed to social justice intervene in the upcoming debates.

The problems with special education are well known. To name just a few: How to find and retain special education teachers. How to guarantee parents’ and students’ rights without mandating overwhelming paper work. How to serve all students without erroneously classifying a disproportional number of African Americans and other students of color into special education classes. How to ensure that teachers maintain high standards for special education students.

These are complicated issues. But all are linked to three central factors: sufficient money and resources, improved conditions of teaching and learning, and improved social services in all areas – not just education – for those families least able to afford the extra help needed by students with special needs.


One of the key issues facing Congress is fulfilling its 27-year pledge to provide sufficient funding.

When the federal government first passed special ed legislation in 1975, it promised to cover 40 percent of the additional costs incurred by districts to educate students with disabilities. This pledge, which is commonly referred to as “full funding,” has never been kept. Currently, districts receive federal funds covering only about 15 percent of the promised special ed funds.

This broken promise has been particularly harmful to resource-starved urban districts, which have a higher percentage of special education students. In Milwaukee, for example, 15.3 percent of the students are classified as special education, compared to 12 percent nationwide.

State and local districts have been forced to pick up the rest of the costs. Again, urban districts – already suffering from the well-known “savage inequalities” in funding – bear the brunt of the burden. As a result, students in special education in urban districts are often in larger classes and have fewer support services than their more affluent suburban counterparts.

Conservatives, seizing upon legitimate criticisms, are using the rhetoric of reform to massively reduce federal funding of what they call the “special education bureaucracy.” But reducing funding will only exacerbate, not solve, the problems facing special education.

We certainly recognize the many problems in special education – from lack of qualified personnel, to inadequate training for general education teachers, to intolerably high student/teacher ratios, to shamefully low expectations for children in special education, to dubious classification and testing procedures. (In his book The Learning Mystique, Gerald Coles makes a compelling case that a lot of what passes for conventional wisdom in the field of special education practice is pseudo-scientific nonsense.)

But the reality remains that many of the problems in special education cannot be solved without additional resources. To individualize instruction for the six million children classified as special education, requires massive funding to pay for planning, teacher collaboration and one-on-one or small group instruction.


As in so many areas in education, true reform must be based on classroom realities. Without the constant input of people who actually do the hard work of teaching students with special needs, solutions to some of these vexing problems of special ed will never be forthcoming.

Unfortunately, once again, teachers have not been welcomed into the discussions on the reauthorization of IDEA.

In October of 2001, President Bush appointed a 21-member President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education. Not one of the members is a practicing special education or general education teacher. Not surprisingly, at their January meeting when the commission decided on specific topics to focus their working groups, they did not create a task force on “teaching conditions,” or even anything similar.


As we enter debate around special education, it’s worth remembering that the initial push for better services to special needs children started in the 1960s and 1970s as disability rights advocates, particularly parents of disabled children, began to organize.

Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement that sought equal opportunities for all people, the organizing and lobbying efforts by and on behalf of disabled people led to the federal recognition that children with special needs were entitled, without qualification, to a “free appropriate public education.”

Further, this commitment clearly has to extend beyond education. Across the country, social realities contribute to problems in child development, health, and nutrition that can lead to “special needs” when children are in school.

Clearly, not all disabilities have their origins in such social realities. At the same time, there is no doubt that inadequate health care, insufficient pre-natal care, environmental pollution, and poor nutrition – problems not limited to but often magnified in poor communities – must be addressed if we are to fulfill our promise of adequately educating all children.

One cannot ignore the problems in special education. But the solution lies in improved commitment and resources – not, as conservatives argue, in dismantling this landmark federal legislation.