Wednesday, March 4, 2009

my letter to Newsweek about Special Education

Newsweek's My Turn section this week had an article entitled, Autism and Education, in which the mother of a special needs child and "gifted" child, suggests that perhaps some funding from special education should be cut and repurposed for "gifted" programs.

Yikes. What an incredibly, incredibly, incredibly bad idea.

Here's the comment I sent to Newsweek:
Cutting Special Needs funding to increase "Gifted" programs is incredibly misguided, for several reasons. First, there is already plenty of opportunity out there for gifted individuals--various enrichment programs through universities, and after high school, top notch universities themselves. Our entire society has multiple openings for bright, intelligent, gifted individuals. The same cannot be said of children (and adults) with disabilities, while there are some programs for such kids, they are few and far between and poorly funded. (BTW, the budget amount mentioned in the article for No Child Left Behind is mostly used for regular education, not Special Education.)

When proposing such a change, it makes sense to look at the risks, benefits, and costs for both the child, family, and society. For the Gifted Child, additional funding may or may not make a difference, but what is the cost of a lack of programming? Some loss of potential? Perhaps. Perhaps the gifted child will be "doomed" to lead a slightly more ordinary life, but certainly one that is self-supporting and can still benefit society.

On the other hand, the cost of failing to provide adequate special education to children with special needs is high indeed. The goal of success is, as the author points out, sometimes just to be self-sufficient. Failure to help reach this "minimum" standard results in institutionalization, either in group homes, larger facilities, or prison. Just look at the percentage of our high school dropouts and prison population who have various developmental and learning disabilities. This is the result of underfunding special education--a drain on society, a long-term burden on families, and great loss of freedom and potential for the children not served. These costs are definite--not just potentialities (as opposed to the losses with not fully funding "gifted" education).

One of the great shames of America right now is actually the lack of Federal funding for Special Education. More and more of the burden of special education is being borne by states and local school districts. Increased reliance on local funding for special education results in growing inequality in student performance between rich suburban districts, with special needs children with milder needs, and poor urban districts, with large populations of children with severe needs.

Ms. Lindsley's daughter will be all right, whether she gets increased "gifted" program funding or not, but her son's future will be far less bright without early and proper special education support.


Claudia said...

I have seen special needs students thrive and I've seen them flounder. The difference? Early intervention and programs to help the child. Addressing something like autism in preschool is the difference between helping a young person become a contributing member of society or a drain. No child wants to be a drain. That a child's future is altered because of what school district he/she attends is maddening. I'll shut up now.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Well said, Claudia. Our son has various special needs, and early intervention and quality special education have been an immense help for him. But we ended up having to move because we could see that the Boston public schools did not have a long-term solution that would work for him. Not everyone has the resources to move like we did, though. The discrepancies in resources between districts is stunning--this has a direct relationship to the long-term future of these kids.

Deb Vlock said...


Well said. You are so right. I find arguments like that so frustrating, and I'm surprised the mother of a special needs child would propose such a thing. If my son had not had the intensive intervention and continued special education programming and services that he's been lucky enough to get, he would be a different child indeed. But like you, we are not without resources; we could make that happen. Our very bright and talented older child will thrive anywhere, but our little guy on the autism spectrum needs all the help he can get. I hope resources are not taken away from him!

Ed_Thoughts said...