Is special education too expensive?
In this editor's opinion, it may not have been responsible journalism--even balanced journalism--to open the segment, narrated by Leslie Stahl and produced by Rome Hartman, showing four isolated children with multiple disabilities, including blindness, being whisked away by executive jet from Westchester County Airport in New York on their weekly trek to the New York State School for the Blind in Batavia, New York--huge expenditures of tax dollars for special education--but it certainly got the viewer's attention!
According to Ms. Stahl, one in every eight school children is receiving some type of special education at a price tag of 32 billion dollars yearly--one quarter of the cost for all public school education annually. Throughout the short segment the viewer was led to believe it costs $100,000 dollars per year for those children to be educated at the School for the Blind in Batavia, New York, as opposed to approximately $30,000 per year within their public schools at home, that the cost to educate students with disabilities is very disproportionate to the 96 billion dollars being spent on all other students annually, and that other programs are being cut in order to maintain special education. Granted, students highlighted in Batavia had multiple disabilities requiring much more individual and specialized attention, including some rather expensive technological aids....still, the credibility is stretched rather thinly when students with other, more frequently found disabilities were not compared. Readers are well aware of incidence figures placing students with learning disabilities at the top, followed by those with speech impairments, mental retardation, behavioral disorders, on down the line to those students with both hearing and visual impairments.
When students with learning disabilities were mentioned, it was an isolated case in metropolitan Washington, DC, where the school district pays tuition to send its students with learning disabilities to a private school rather than educate them within their own school system; no mention was made as to whether or not it was more cost effective for the school district to pay their tuition rather than add the facilities, personnel, equipment, and supplies to an already strapped budget. In short, the 60 Minutes piece did not show advocacy for special education! On the other hand, it was thought provoking; it made viewers search their intellects, feelings, and souls with regard to where they stand on a free appropriate education!
In September 1973, Congress passed a law (PL 93112) that prohibited discrimination on the basis of physical or mental handicap in every program or activity sponsored by a recipient of federal assistance in the country. That law was Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act. Although it is brief in language, its applications are far reaching. The statute reads:
No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
On April 28, 1977, Joseph A Califano, Jr., then Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, (HEW) in recognition of the great disparity in educational opportunities existing for individuals with disabilities, issued final Section 504 regulations for all recipients of funds from HEW, including elementary and secondary schools, colleges, hospitals, social service agencies, and in some instances, doctors. Germane to the regulation were six tenants: no handicapped child to be excluded from a public education because of disability; each to be entitled to a free appropriate education; students were not to be segregated, but educated with peers where feasible; evaluation procedures were to be improved upon to avoid misclassification; safeguards were to be established to allow parents or guardians to object with regard to evaluation and/or placement; and the state or local education agencies were responsible for identification of unserved children. From this point onward, coupled with PL 94-142 and its various amendments through PL 101-476, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act in 1990, special education services have been at the forefront of change in the lives of over four million students, aged 3 through 21 (now birth through 21) every year.
True, by the very nature of some disabling conditions, the cost of educating one child will be higher than another, with or without a disability. However, special education, per se, should not be made the scapegoat for the dollar squeeze public education continually finds itself in today. Financing public education through property taxes is obviously an out-dated method and is not the answer, a fact agreed to in at least five states where the process has been ruled unconstitutional. Nor should parents of students with disabilities be made to feel they are milking the system when they act on behalf of their children as informed advocates when exercising their rights within the due process system as guaranteed by law.
This editor does not believe in squandering financial resources to the detriment of other children and their needs for a sound education; however, neither does this editor believe that every child with a disability will become a fully actualized human being through special education...nevertheless, the worth and dignity of each human being demands that the attempt, within reason, be made.
The fact that education is underfunded is a given. Its woes will not be served by diminishing the scope of special education--rather, other sources and methods of equitably funding education need to be explored by both federal and state governments. Ethical, responsible, prudent, and purposeful education for students with special needs is more of a must today than ever before. It would serve us all well if 60 Minutes would highlight some of the successes within typical special education programs rather than only the isolated cases viewers were exposed to on the evening of June 9, 1996. Is special education too expensive? Certainly not when compared to the costs to society of what increasingly uneducated individuals with disabilities would place on the nation if there were no special education.