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Drawing Line on Special Education

The landmark 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandated a "free appropriate" public education for students in this group.  Congress also said the education should be provided in the "least restrictive environment."  Over the years, an increasing number of parents have successfully argued that their children's needs can only be met in a private school at public expense ("Balancing Special-Education Needs With Rising Costs," The New York Times, Jul. 28).

The problem is that educating a special-needs student in a private school is typically $20,000 more than in a public school.  I don't think there is anything more heartbreaking than to see a defenseless child being deprived of an appropriate education. On the other hand, school budgets are limited.  As a result, the issue is highly controversial.  In New York City, home of the nation's largest school district, about 12,000 of the 190,000 special-education students are educated privately at public expense.

I first became aware of the issue in 1997 when Tom Freston, then a Viacom Inc. top executive, initiated a legal battle to force New York City to pay for his son's tuition at a private school for children with disabilities there ("Special Education: When Should Taxes Pay Private Tuition?" The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 1, 2007)  Since then, court rulings have reinforced the right of parents to get the education their children need with public funds.  New York City alone spends more than $200 million annually on such education, which is a huge increase from just a few million a year in the 1990s.

I don't believe that parents are trying to get free private schooling. They have a legitimate case. The question is how to pay for the education.  It's here that the federal government has been derelict in its duty.  IDEA is after all a federal law.  It's incumbent on Congress to provide adequate funding. Anything else is cruel.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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