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Even on IDEA's 35th, Special Ed Dollars Aren't Free

Question: What do Arne Duncan, Sarah Palin, Tom Harkin, and Mike Enzi all have in common? Answer: They, along with just about every other figure in education, turn into pandering sops the moment somebody mentions special education or IDEA.

They'll dwell on how the feds need to fully fund their share, the rights of these families, and the need to do a better job of identifying and addressing special needs. All fair enough points. The problem is that none of our leaders can then bring themselves to utter the simple truth: "But we have an obligation to serve all our children, and responsible leadership means we have to weigh costs and benefits when it comes to allocating dollars, time, and energy." Instead, they'll hide behind sentimental stories, legal requirements (ignoring that the laws are just codifying federal policies), and a determined silence regarding the staggering costs of special education today. Acting upon this simple dictum is no straightforward matter, giving existing statutes and case law—but merely voicing the principle could exert a bracing discipline.

Last week was the 35th anniversary of IDEA, and the craven parade was on full display. A day after giving a terrific speech on the need to get serious about cost-effectiveness and stop pretending that edu-dollars grow on trees, Secretary Duncan gave an anniversary speech that cheerfully listed entitlements the law conveys without ever once suggesting that these carried any kind of cost.

Look, as the Secretary said, when it was passed, "[IDEA] was a major civil rights victory... In 1975, more than one million children with disabilities were being turned away from school altogether. Hundreds of thousands of children with severe disabilities were in institutions that didn't meet their needs." That's absolutely true. But times change. The major challenge for special education today is not access, but quality. As we try to better serve children with special needs, it's vital to recognize that we don't have endless resources—and that open-ended promises to some mean stripping resources away from others.

Now, past experience teaches that this little post will garner more than the usual amount of irate comments from the very organized, very sympathetic special needs lobby—but this really shouldn't register as a radical plea. All I'm saying is that I'd love to hear leaders occasionally address special ed not with an eye to placating the potent force that is the special ed community, but in terms of how we ought to best balance our obligations to all of our children.

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