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A bad IDEA.

New York's Mahopac Central School District will spend roughly $3.2 million on the transportation of its 4,400 students this year, an average of $727 per child. But about $68,000 of that will be spent on the transportation of just one child--a child whose classroom is nearly 400 miles away at the New York State School for the Blind in Batavia. Every week he is driven to White Plains so he can catch a plane to Rochester, where a car takes him to school. And, thanks to the nation's special education law--the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)--Mahopac must pick up the bulk of the tab for the boy's weekly round-trip and schooling.

The IDEA was created in 1975 to help level the education playing field for disabled children, many of whom were receiving little or no education in out-of-the-way, makeshift classrooms. But since then, the law has gone far beyond its goal of ensuring adequate schooling by providing some kids with extravagantly expensive instruction. The law puts no limit on the cost of special education, and then leaves school districts to pay the bills.

In Mahopac, the IDEA will force the district to spend $98,000 on the education and transportation of that one child this year, although Mahopac school officials believe the child could get an appropriate education at a nearby regional school for $60,000 less. And Mahopac's story is not an anomaly. Schools in Yorktown and Yonkers have kids on that same plane to Batavia. The Washington Post recently reported that three counties abutting Washington D.C. will spend nearly $50 million this year on 1,800 disabled students. One student alone has cost $500,000 so far.

In a time of shrinking resources for education, districts are meting out unconscionable amounts of money for a few children-more often than not, disabled children with affluent parents who can afford to force the system to provide the best for their kids. It's not that children with disabilities don't deserve a good education. But as some parents wrangle costly benefits for their kids, other children--those who are disabled but have parents unable or unwilling to fight the system, or those born with disadvantages such as poverty--are paying the price.

Given the Republicans' famous disdain for unfunded mandates, many school boards thought the GOP Congress would either fully fund the IDEA or ease its requirements. They were wrong. As the Republicans prepare to reauthorize the IDEA, they appear to be opting for a bold third option: Fix some of the law's problems, but leave the most pressing one--funding--unaddressed. On this issue, Washington's revolutionaries are caught between their desire to avoid spending a dime more on domestic programs and their fear of a powerful parents' lobby. Instead, like the Democrats before them, the Republicans are content to continue offering some disabled kids the best education money can buy, and sticking districts like Mahopac with the bill.

The $60,000 Question

Like many of the legislative quagmires born in Washington, the IDEA began with the noblest of intentions. In 1975, Congress passed the law proclaiming that each child deserved a "free, appropriate" education in the "least restrictive environment." It seemed the very model of egalitairian rule. Since each disabled child has unique problems, the law said, each deserves his own educational plan tailored to his specific needs. And when skeptics questioned the law's funding, Congress quickly calmed fears with a promise that Washington would cover up to 40 percent of the IDEA's cost. The key words: "up to."

President Ford, who signed the bill only when it became clear that Congress had the numbers to override a veto, warned of the problems the IDEA would cause down the road. "Even the strongest supporters of this measure know as well as I that they are falsely raising the expectations of the groups affected by claiming authorization levels which are excessive and unrealistic." And while the words "political visionary" and "Gerald Ford" are seldom uttered in the same breath, he correctly saw the road ahead on this one. Federal funding, which has never neared 40 percent, stood at 8 percent last year and will likely stay there for the foreseeable future.

In South Portland, Maine, the public schools plan to launch a $120,000-a-year special program next year to educate four severely autistic children. Its cost for the district is substantial--the state will pay only 35 percent--but the district is creating the program to save money, according to South Portland's special education director, Bob Powers. Right now, the district is spending about the same amount to send the autistic kids to private schools. With the new program, if a few more autistic kids enter the district, the cost-per-pupil will drop. Saving money in special education has become a priority for South Portland: The district has seen its special education budget rise 44 percent in four years. It's now 15 percent of the total budget.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, James and Maryann Riordan are using the IDEA in a fight to keep their autistic 10-year-old son, Willie Joe, in a residential treatment program. They say it is the only place he can grow and get anything close to a real education. The problem? The placement costs about $100,000 a year--a big bill for the Hasbrouck Heights school district to cover. The district is sympathetic to the Riordans' plight but is fighting the plan because of its cost. Instead, it is proposing a special day-school for Willie Joe that it believes would give him an appropriate education and would cost "only" $121 a day. The district's plan would save the schools roughly $70,000, but the Riordans will have none of it.

It's the plight of districts like South Portland and Hasbrouck Heights that prompted two respected moderate Republican senators, Mark Hatfield of Oregon and James Jeffords of Vermont, to call attention to the IDEA's shortcomings in the last few years. Unfortunately, both found themselves quickly backpedaling. Two years ago, Jeffords devised a simple solution to the law's funding problem: split the costs equally between the feds, the state governments, and the school districts. In 1994, Jeffords's proposal passed the Senate as a non-binding resolution, 99-1. But he has since dropped the plan, thinking "maybe he should just focus on making sure the funding isn't cut" by the GOP Congress, according to one Jeffords aide.

One reason Jeffords may have changed his mind about reforming the IDEA is suggested by Hatfield's experience. Last year, Hatfield tried to address the issue of the law's requirements by sending letters to schools, professional organizations, and parents asking how to fix the IDEA. In a speech on the Senate floor he summarized the suggestions, calling for an "elimination of the disproportionate areas of funding of the law" and a cap on the amount that can be spent on one child." He soon learned why those plans are unfeasible. "We did not hear in bulk from parents until after the speech," says one aide. But then, "Parents came all the way from Oregon to bitch us out." And back in Oregon, the parents blasted his ideas in local meetings. Not surprisingly, none of Hatfield's proposals will be in the Senate's reauthorization bill. "It would be a blood bath," says the aide.

That parents flew across the country to chew out Hatfield is a telling detail. It takes parents with ample resources to do that, and by and large it's those same parents who have turned the IDEA into an out-of-control entitlement. This is the law's other major flaw: It gives even the children it covers wildly disparate treatment. Under the law, every disabled child in America has an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, created just for her. The plan is drawn up by the school of each child with parental help. If the parents don't like the arbiter's decision they can appeal to the courts. The result is a system that favors those with the time and money to hire lawyers and get expensive medical testing and testimony to make sure a school district lives up to its responsibility under the IDEA.

The chairman of one New York City school board says that even within the city there are large discrepancies. Some districts, he says, have a policy of easily granting "no public school available" rulings (in which the public schools pay for a student's private schooling), while others avoid them. So, theoretically, two city students with the same problem, separated by nothing more than a street, could get vastly different treatment.

One New York City school official who has sat in on days of special education meetings between schools and parents says it all comes down to money: If the parents have good insurance or the money to get a "favorable" diagnosis for their child, they come to the meeting armed for battle. They argue about what their kids deserve, present their medical information, and usually get a better deal than the district would have offered. The schools are supposed to spend the same amount of time with each family, but some parents get more time. "I was looking at the chart for the day's meetings," the New York City official says, "and asked why the slot was empty after one name. They said, `Those parents are professors at Columbia. We gave them a double slot.'" In contrast, he notes, "Many of the poor families simply entrust their child to the system."

Even defenders of the IDEA admit this happens. "Children in the right school with the right parents will do better than children in a poor district without those things," says Kevin Dwyer, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists. Indeed. The IDEA and subsequent court decisions have made it possible for thousands of the "right parents" across the country to write all sorts of things off to their school districts--private school placements, medical treatments like catheterization, sometimes even apartments for young adults.

The IDEA invites abuse with its lack of sensible standards. It's only natural for parents to fight for everything they can get for their kids. That's why standards that delineate the appropriate treatment for a particular disability, and how high the cost of that treatment can go, are so necessary.

Of course, such rules would have the effect of categorizing" children, creating blanket solutions to individual problems--but that is no different from the way every child in the public schools is treated. My public school did not develop individual education plans for us; it put us in classes with similar kids, taught us, tested us, and sorted us by our abilities. And if one of us wasn't doing well, the school could not throw an extra $10,000 at his education. That's not to say we shouldn't spend more on disabled children than others, but why should kids with similar disabilities get vastly different treatments?

Defenders of the IDEA say individual treatment is necessary for disabled kids because somehow standards aren't "appropriate" for children with serious problems. "We're talking about trying to level the playing field," says Kathleen Boundy of the Center for Law and Education. "We have kids here born with a disadvantage." Boundy is right: The disabled were born with a disadvantage. But is the kid born to a single mother who happens to be a crack addict in the inner city at less of a disadvantage than a child born deaf to a wealthy suburban couple? In the effort to rectify the inequities that those born disabled confront, we've ended up creating--or exacerbating--other inequities. The more resources used to sustain a few children whose parents can demand the moon for them, the less there is for kids born with other disadvantages. If we're committed to equal opportunity for all children--and that was the motivating principle behind the IDEA--we need to strike a balance between all children's needs. After all, across the river from me in the Bronx there are thousands of kids who were born at a disadvantage. Every day they walk to decaying, crime-filled schools. And no one is offering to fly them to Andover.
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Title Annotation:Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
Author:Chinni, Dante
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1996
Words:2021
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