Special education is an overly convoluted topic with the potential to torpedo a politician’s (or policymaker’s) career. As a result, most public figures and organizations give the subject a wide berth. Which is unfortunate, because the very reason for that convolution is what requires action: Special education is broken. It’s a broken solution to an important problem few are willing to speak publicly about. And even fewer are willing to invest the political capital necessary to make more than surface-level changes to the laws that protect our neediest children. No amount of retooling will fix the fundamental flaws of this system — we need an entirely different model.
Our current model was developed in the 1970s, when many schools still refused to educate “handicapped” students because it was too expensive or difficult. Through a series of court rulings and laws, the federal government demanded a “free and appropriate public education” be provided for all children. Congress allocated funding to help school districts pay for the extra services, but to ensure that districts didn’t backtrack on their obligations, those funds were only made available to states and districts that held funding for special education at a constant (or greater) level each year. Funding for other student groups would not count toward this “maintenance of effort” requirement. However, as schools have expanded their range of services for all students — and our understanding of cognitive disabilities and disorders has evolved — this two-tier system has become increasingly archaic and burdensome.
But instead of recognizing this similar need, our special education system divides students based on a false construct of those who are “able” and those who are not. If a student has fallen behind their classmates in reading, does it matter why? Why does a student with dyslexia require supports while a student who is simply struggling gets nothing? Money and privilege are not equally apportioned across society. Is a child with ADHD worse off than a child whose parents worked four jobs between them and never read to them as a toddler? Is a child with a hearing impairment worse off than a child of a single mother with a heroin addiction?
Should our government, or anyone, be making those types of decisions?
There’s an alternative. Instead of categorizing children by their circumstances (medical, socioeconomic, or otherwise) to approximate need and mandate services, our laws should require constant progress monitoring for all children and appropriate supports to stay on track. Response to Intervention (RTI) is an education model that emphasizes a strong core curriculum with frequent assessments to identify who needs help. If in-classroom supports aren’t sufficient, then small-group instruction is employed, tailored to the needs of the student. One-on-one attention is available for those students with the most significant need. Assessments and interventions are designed to catch students early and get them back on track, or as close to the track as possible. RTI is becoming increasingly popular in states and school districts across the U.S., but current laws limit its potential reach.
If special education funds (and regulations) were based on required services — like small-group math coaching or speech pathology — teachers and administrators could develop smart, coordinated interventions for all students with need. School oversight would be focused on making sure all students receive what they require to succeed, rather than on the amount of money spent on students with medical diagnoses (which say nothing about their ability levels). And those students with high-need disabilities would continue to receive their services, because all students would be subject to assessment and individualized support.
Tearing down the divide between special education and general education would benefit everyone. The disability label is not necessary or helpful; it does not define the needs of a child or his potential — nor does the absence of a medical disability negate a child’s struggles or measure his advantage. Our laws and funding structures have created a line which is harshly demarcated but entirely meaningless. In reality, there are no special-ed kids or general-ed kids; there are simply children who need an education. Each one unique. Each one requiring special attention. And every one deserving it.
Matt Richmond is a research analyst for a DC-based think tank and co-author of Financing the Education of High-Need Students. Reach him via email or Twitter.