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When Special Education Creates Special Issues

As if public schools are not already faced with enough daunting challenges in today's accountability movement, their responsibilities have become heavier as a result of a series of court decisions and district policies regarding special education. The setting for the latest example is New York City, home of the nation's largest school district.

Beginning this fall, more than 250 schools will be urged by Chancellor Joel I. Klein to accept more students with disabilities, rather than send them to schools that have specific programs for special education. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975, students are to be given individualized education plans and placed in the least restrictive appropriate setting.

Although the intent of IDEA is praiseworthy, its implementation has created unanticipated problems for schools. In a multi-part, front-page series beginning on July 9, 2007, the Wall Street Journal documented how attempts to comply with both the spirit and letter of the law have made it the fourth most litigated federal statute.

The reason is the unintended adversarial relationship and lack of trust between schools and parents that IDEA has sometimes fostered. It's understandable why parents with disabled children want the best education for them. But it's also understandable that not all schools are equipped to do so. As a result, the battle lines were drawn for an eventual legal showdown. On Oct. 10, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that special education children have the right to receive private schooling at taxpayer expense when public schools are unable to provide them with the services they need.

But the issue is far from settled. Public schools that enroll disabled students often find themselves dealing with behavioral issues they could not have foreseen. Because it has become more difficult to suspend or expel these students, schools often need to resort to the use of harsh tactics such as seclusion or restraint to protect other students and teachers. This strategy has angered many people who maintain that it is being routinely used, rather than implemented only as a last resort.

There is also the question of how to finance the new legal mandates. Disabled students are expensive to educate. New York City, for example, now spends $4.8 billion annually on special education, compared with $3.8 billion five years ago. The figure includes $1.2 billion annually to send students to private schools because their needs cannot be met by public schools.

Adding to the controversy is how to identify students who require special education. In an essay for the Manhattan Institute For Policy Research, Jay P. Greene wrote: "Almost the entire increase in special education enrollments since 1976 can be attributed to a rise in one category, called 'specific learning disability,' ... " ("The Myth of the Special Education Burden," Jul. 12, 2002). He maintained that this diagnosis is more subjective and less expensive to treat than other categories of special education. As a result, taxpayers are receiving a distorted picture of the nature and magnitude of the problem.

No one denies the right of disabled students to receive a quality education. Mainstreaming finally brings special education out of the dark ages where it was hidden for far too long. But severe behavioral problems present schools with situations that they were never designed to handle. That's a crucial distinction being given short shrift today.

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