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Special Education Eligibility Requirement Proposals Are a Shame

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Last week parents, teachers and other advocates for special education students gathered at a meeting in Detroit held by the Michigan Department of Education Office of Special Education. The concerns centered on a 19-page proposal to change special education eligibility and teaching requirements in the state.

The list of changes to the special education system range from what types of students qualify for the programs to what types of teachers can teach what types of students (one proposal calls for "teacher consultants" to work with certain special education students). Many of the parents protesting the rules, which they say were released without enough time for people to read and understand them before the public meeting, have children on the autism spectrum. 

Michigan, which has long had special education standards that are better than the federal requirements, appears to be bowing to the rising cost of special education in the state. Particularly, the proposal seems to find loopholes for the removal of students with autism-like issues and puts more rigid standards in place for which diagnoses will be allowed in special education classrooms.

Despite some federal oversight into how special education programs are run, the responsibility for financing the programs falls wholly on the local districts and state. The state of California lists special education spending as one of "the most significant areas of K-12 expenditures" and in the 2010 - 2011 school year the state spent double ($22,300) per special education student than mainstream peers. Most educators and parents (with or without special education kids of their own) agree that these costs are well worth it in taxpayer and other state dollars. Every student deserves the best education possible and customized learning based on ability. The cultural support of quality special education has led to higher graduation rates for these students than in the past, though there is certainly still room for growth.

So it becomes clear that these proposals in Michigan, and any similar ones across the country, are purely cost based. Not only are they based on bottom line, but they appear to single out a particular group of students who are increasingly becoming part of the special education community: autism spectrum kids. Is it right to edge out some of these students based on strict definitions (autism has five known variations at this point)? Should a student who would thrive in a special education environment lose out on that experience due to a technicality? And should the quality of the teacher be reduced, and impact the quality of education of the student, just to save a few (tens of thousands of) bucks?

As a former public school teacher, I know how incredibly difficult it can be for school districts and state education budgets to stay within their confines. It seems that some student suffers in some capacity when cuts are made but when it comes to special education, it strikes me as an especially low blow. These are the students that need the most help and support and the ones where a push for higher parental involvement does not always bridge the academic gap. These students need highly-trained teachers and program resources designed with them in mind to succeed.

Rather than trying to push families out of special education programs based on methodic eligibility of human beings as easily defined entities, states should embrace these students as opportunities. A push to close the achievement gap between special education students and their peers early in their lives can mean a great economic impact later on - and a higher quality of life for these students and their families.

Are you in favor of, or against, stricter special education eligibility requirements?

Dr. Matthew Lynch is the author of the recently released book, The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching. To order it via Amazon, please click on the following link.

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