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Educating special kids.

Including disabled children in regular classrooms instead of providing them with segregated special education has divided advocates, parents and teachers--but there's a way to make it work.

The issue seems simple--enroll disabled students, no matter the severity of their handicaps, in regular classrooms in neighborhood schools where they can interact with "normal peers" and prepare for life in the "real world."

But in the complex world of special education, the matter of inclusion is far from simple.

At village crossroads and in metropolitan centers, parents, teachers, school administrators, lawyers, judges and advocates for the disabled are taking sides. The debate on when, where and how to include special education students in general education classrooms has sometimes run hot and divisive. Parents of disabled students who were to be moved into regular classrooms led an angry crowd of about 500 people into a Maryland school board meeting. In California, the Sacramento Unified School District has spent more than half a million dollars contesting a family's demands that their 9-year-old daughter, who is mentally retarded, be placed in a regular classroom. And a circuit court of appeals judge in Philadelphia ordered that a child with Down syndrome be put back in the regular classroom despite the school attorney's arguments that the boy was "the most disruptive child you'll ever find."

Inclusion has been a concept promoted by parents, local school boards, state education departments and especially the courts.

But California Senator Dan Mc-Corquodale believes it is important that the states shape legislation to handle the matter. "If we wait for the courts or federal law, we are not serving our constituents," he contends.

And with the call to reform America's education system from the top down and ground up, constituents are demanding that legislators look closely at special education when considering education reform and finance. Teachers, parents and various advocates are asking legislators to stop abuses done in the name of including the disabled.

McCorquodale contends that, though the word "inclusion" may raise hackles, there are ways that a disabled child can join a general education class with few ill effects on the student, teacher or fellow classmates.

Model programs in Ohio, New York, California, New Mexico and other states have shown how to successfully integrate a child with disabilities into the regular classroom. Emphasis on the unique needs and abilities of each child coupled with a willing general education teacher who has received some training in dealing with the disabled, special education personnel assigned to the regular classroom when a disabled student is placed there and sensitivity training for classmates can take the negative connotation from the word.

McCorquodale, a former special education teacher, criticizes the current system of education where the disabled are segregated from other children.

"As far as disabled people being a part of our society, one of the biggest gaps is when they are still in school," he explains. "I've heard some of our disabled youngsters being referred to as the |Outhouse Kids' because they are educated in separate buildings."

Taking Sides

One of the barriers to inclusion is fear--fear of past abuses and neglect of the handicapped, fear that removing a disabled child from the classroom will result in a lawsuit based on civil rights violations, fear on the part of teachers that they will not be able to cope with severely disabled or emotionally disturbed children in their classrooms and parents' fears that their children needing special help will slip through the cracks of the general education system.

On the one side, pushing for full inclusion of the youth with severe cerebral palsy, the quadriplegic, the child who faces extreme disabilities are parents and advocates of children who have never been allowed to go to school with other kids in the neighborhood.

Such a youngster is Paul Price, a 15-year-old paraplegic who needs a ventilator to breathe and receives medication through a tube in his stomach. Taught in his Florida home, the boy is so starved for companionship that he hands out business cards reading: "Call me for good conversation." Paul's mother believes he should be able to attend his neighborhood school and make friends his own age.

Parents point out that their disabled children must learn to survive in "the real world" in spite of handicaps, and that they need the social skills and experiences to be gained by attending school with normal peers.

Supporters also note handicapped students in the class bring "average" children a new perspective and understanding of the disabled, smashing stereotypes about the handicapped.

Groups such as the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) contend that denying regular classes to children with disabilities is a form of discrimination.

"By exclusion, we're talking segregation--segregation when your classroom contains only other handicapped children," emphasizes Paul Marchand, ARC's director of government affairs. "And even more segregation if you are going to a totally special school."

On the other side of the debate are general education teachers who fear indiscriminate placement of special education children in their classes.

"With severe handicaps, particularly emotional conditions that could lead to violence or where the condition is clearly disruptive--where children have no control of flailing limbs or the noises they may make--the results can be total disruption of the regular classroom," says Marcia Reback, a member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Special Education Task Force.

"My classroom was just a shambles," laments a Colorado high school teacher when telling of an emotionally disturbed boy placed in her general education class. "Here I had 20 students and a wonderful Down syndrome child who needed and deserved my attention, and I was spending all my time trying to control this one [emotionally disturbed] boy."

Educational Apartheid

Through the concerted efforts of parents, legislators and educators, disabled children were granted limited rights to a public education in the 1960s and early '70s. The picture, however, was bleak. One parent described his child's school as "a little building surrounded by a cyclone fence, off on a remote corner of a vast elementary school playground. There was even a cyclone fence gate across the front door."

In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act--PL 94-142. That law and its 1990 amendment, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, guaranteed a free and "appropriate" public education in the "least restrictive environment" for all children, regardless of severity or type of disabilities. The law was sufficiently broad that states and individual school districts began narrowing the interpretation to fit their needs and pocketbooks. (Congress committed federal funds for up to 40 percent of the additional special education costs, but never put up more than 11 percent. The federal government currently pays between 8 percent and 9 percent, leaving states and localities to make up the difference.)

"Schools have shortcut the intent of PL 94-142 over time. If you're handicapped, you're probably going to a school other than the one in your neighborhood or you're going to a self-contained classroom," says Marchand of ARC. He adds that federal intent was for disabled youngsters to be in a regular education setting with the supports and aids that are needed for a child to succeed."

As the system evolved, a separate bureaucracy burgeoned that specialized in soliciting federal money and grants for special education, ensuring state and local funding, defending the rights of the disabled and finding and hiring specially certified teachers.

"Public Law 94-142 created an entire bureaucracy that became an entity unto itself. The system became rigid as to how kids would move back and forth (into and out of the regular classroom)," explains Virginia Roach, director of the Center on Teaching and Learning, National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE).

Schools took a stab at including children with mild disabilities in the general education classroom during the 1980s through the concept of "mainstreaming" or putting students back in the mainstream of education. These youngsters were pulled out of the class at various times for therapy or remedial instruction. Problems arose. Pull-out time interfered with regular education; the dual curriculums were many times uncoordinated; and a national study found that more than a third of the mainstreamed students were expected to keep up with the rest of class without the special help they required.

Special education in the '90s runs the gamut from segregated special schools to full inclusion of disabled students in neighborhood classrooms.

"What you see is anything from really good inclusive programs where disabled children have all the support and special services they need in the regular classroom to the worst kind of mainstreaming where they are thrown in the general classroom and left to sink or swim on their own," Roach explains.

The sink-or-swim mode, "dumping," is what Roach calls "inclusion at its worst." Placing five to eight disabled children in a classroom of 18 to 20 normal peers with no decrease in class size and without special education support has helped create the wave of anxiety sweeping the education community.

Since the cost of educating a disabled child in a segregated special education program is estimated nationwide at 2.5 times that of a normal student, there has also seemed to be some financial incentive to place children in regular classes. However, if adequate support services are provided for those disabled children, savings are minimal.

"Parents and advocates are pushing for inclusion," says Justine Maloney, legislative analyst for the Learning Disabilities Association. "And there has been a backlash. As the pressure mounts, school systems say, 'OK, we'll include.' They take large numbers of handicapped students, put them in regular classes with minimal support and do not cut class size. Some also view it as a way to cut special ed costs."

The results have been that some disabled children, particularly those who have learning disabilities or attention deficit disorder, simply cannot cope when surrounded by the whispers, flickering lights, rattling papers, general hum of conversation and the teacher's voice--all part of the distractions of a regular classroom.

"Their nervous systems overload. There's just too much stimulus. They go on overload and freeze up," Maloney says.

The emphasis on including disabled students in classrooms led one teacher to seek legislative relief. After a school principal placed an emotionally disturbed youngster in an elementary gifted and talented class, the child "shoved chairs into the teacher, threatened other students with scissors and threw something at another child and nearly blinded her," according to Representative Jim Pierson of Colorado, who is also a high school teacher. Because the principal refused to remove the child, announcing it was the "appropriate setting" for him, the teacher turned to Pierson for help.

The result was a new Colorado law that allows school districts to move disabled youngsters "whose acts threaten the safety of other students" to "an appropriate alternative setting."

"Until my bill was passed, a teacher could have a very violent child in the classroom, and there was nothing he or she could do about it," Pierson explains. "What I was seeking to do was to keep people from just sticking a child in a classroom if he does not belong there. Administrators need to take responsibility for making the best and most appropriate placement of the child."

What's Best for the Child?

To succeed, inclusion must be determined on an individual basis. Careful evaluation is needed to see if a disabled child can indeed learn in a general classroom; services must be provided; and teacher and fellow students must be prepared before he arrives.

An Oscar-winning documentary, "Educating Peter," tells the heartwarming story of a child with Down syndrome who succeeds in a regular classroom. What the film does not show, however, is the preparation, planning and support that went into that child's success.

"The teacher was given a year's advance notice, a year to train," Reback of the AFT points out. "The children in the class were given sensitivity courses. There was a special education teacher in the room part of the time. There was an aide in the room and a nurse on call. This was a wealthy community. They could afford those services and put incredible resources into this child.

"But those of us teaching in an urban setting know this can't happen. When the bandwagon effect takes place, there's going to be a struggle for resources and training. Providence, Boston, New York City, Kansas City--that's the world I live in. These schools don't have the money for those kinds of resources," she says.

The way money is allocated in many states is a further deterrent to inclusion since school districts actually lose special education funds when they integrate disabled children into the regular classroom.

Doing It Right

Senator McCorquodale hopes to guide California into doing inclusion right. "The Legislature should cushion the coming of these children when they arrive at regular classes. It can be done with sensitivity, and everyone can gain," he points out.

He is quick to admit, however, that the inclusion bill he plans to introduce in the next legislative session will be controversial. But he says the role of the Legislature is to deal with problems, and "we ought to deal with inclusion."

McCorquodale says by letting disabled youngsters interact with other kids and helping them in the regular classroom, "we are encouraging the growth of productive citizens who can contribute to society. You're looking at a future citizen on whom the state may have to spend a minimal amount because he can better function in society, work at a job, as compared to $100,000 a year spent on him if he is locked away in a center for the disabled."

McCorquodale contends it is better for the legislature to set clear and concise guidelines for the needs of children--both those in the classroom and those with disabilities--than to have a court mandate inclusion. "On Monday, the court will say that little Rachel has the right to be in a regular class. On Tuesday, she shows up. The school is not ready for her, the teacher is not ready and neither is the class," he says.

"We have to do these things in a deliberate and considered fashion. We can mediate between factions. We can design an inclusion program that capitalizes on a student's strengths and abilities and helps him overcome his disabilities."

And, he adds, "I'd tell other legislators, 'If you haven't found a niche, a place where you can change society, grab this issue and run with it.'"

Funding Key in Special Education Reform

Special education is to public education what entitlement programs are to the federal government," says Dan McCormack, a Denver area school superintendent. "Funding is decreasing while costs remain the same or are increasing because of the mandates. We have little control over the program, and there are no options."

Although there is a movement in some states to reform special education by requiring the inclusion of disabled students in regular classrooms and mandating that necessary services are provided for them there--legislatures swing the most clout in changing the system through funding.

Funding formula modifications have significantly changed special education in Oregon, Pennsylvania and New Mexico and have led to financial incentives to include disabled children in regular classes.

"It helped us to include more special education in the regular classroom when the Legislature changed its funding formula in 1992," explains Linda Wilson, director of special education for the New Mexico Department of Education. "Before that, funding was tied to a place. If a child required more services, the money for them was tied to a separate place, such as a special education resource room, segregating our special education children. It was a wonder we didn't get sued long ago. The new language ties funding to the amount of services needed in the most appropriate environment."

Oregon created the State School Fund in 1992 that pays school districts from a single source. The state no longer splits the budget between special and general education, pitting advocates against one another in a battle for money.

And the state also has decreased the incentive to classify as many children as possible as needing special education in order to get more state funds.

In Oregon, there is a cap on the amount of special education funds a school district can receive based on the average number of special education students in the general population. Schools can apply for waivers to the cap, but must prove need.

Nationwide, school districts have been led to believe they must use federal special education money strictly for special education--that they cannot pay a special ed aide, who also works in the general education classroom, from funds earmarked specifically for special education.

The mixing of funds--paying that aide from either special ed or general education budgets--is not illegal, but districts have problems with their auditors when doing this. Many also find such funding increases the work load for the accounting department. The solution is to separate special education staff, aides and resources and, consequently, to segregate the students from the general education classroom,

Oregon solved the dilemma by rewriting finance laws so money is allocated in one lump sum and is not restricted to specific uses.

Pennsylvania has also succeeded in severing the links between funding and the number of disabled children, Originally, the state paid 100 percent of all education costs for handicapped and gifted children, creating an incentive to put more and more students into special education and gifted programs. Under the state's new plan, districts receive $525 for each mildly impaired and gifted student. For severely impaired students, $7,000 is allocated per child. The new funding formula followed adoption of regulations changing the screening procedure that determined eligibility for special services.

Another problem with special education reform from the legislative angle is that separate committees may consider issues affecting the disabled. "In some states, special education is looked at by the disabilities committee while education bills go through the education committee," explains Virginia Roach, director of the National Association of State Boards of Education Center on Teaching and Learning. "Legislators need to make sure that both committees are looking at the same things when it comes to special education.

"Reforms are usually made by the education committee, and the committee on the disabled doesn't interact with them. It's easy to see how an educational forum doesn't take into account kids with disabilities," she adds.

It's not only committees. In many states, special and general education policies evolve from entirely separate agencies that, like special and general education teachers, find little common ground.

When Kentucky revamped its education system in 1990, it abolished a separate office for special education and created a new division in the state education department. The division for exceptional children handles matters affecting at-risk and culturally diverse students, as well as students with disabilities. Special education experts also were moved to general education departments, helping meld the separate bureaucracies.

A Vermont law passed in 1990 reformed the way all children, including those with special needs, are educated.

The law requires public schools to have an instruction support team that can be called in by a classroom teacher when any student, disabled or not, is having trouble learning. The teams are supported by special education funds, and I percent of the total special education budget goes to the training of every teacher and administrator in the state.

Because Vermont's general education teachers not only receive training but can call on the assistance of the support team to help students, most children, disabled or not, are succeeding in the regular classroom, according to NASBE. Since the law was enacted, the number of students labelled as learning disabled, with attention deficit or other special education classifications, as well as those removed from regular classes for special services, dropped almost 13 percent.

States can also reward schools that put all students in regular classrooms and make the system work, NASBE says. Those same enterprising schools can serve as models for other districts. In California, SB 1274 allows the state to award demonstration grants to local districts that have proposed projects that will best meet the needs of all (disabled, immigrant, gifted, disadvantaged) learners."

Changes in the requirements for teacher certification can also be a key to including disabled students successfully in the regular classroom. In Maine and Pennsylvania, districts and schools have the flexibility to tailor training to their specific needs.

For more information on inclusion, as well as recommendations for legislative, departmental and local actions on this issue, NASBE has a task force report, "Winners All: A Call for Inclusive Schools." To obtain a copy, write The National Association of State Boards of Education, 11012 Cameron Street, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Copies cost $10. NASBE may also be reached by calling (703) 684-400.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Gordon, Dianna
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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