Not A Good IDEA

Posted: Apr 11, 2001 12:00 AM
Buried in President Bush's liberal-spending, $44.5 billion education budget is a little-noticed proposal to increase funds for special education. The budget item intends to help states and school districts comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law theoretically guarantees a "free and appropriate education" to disabled students. In practice, it provides neither. The feds spent $6 billion last year on IDEA, which covers an estimated 6 million students with physical, learning or emotional disabilities. Bush's budget allows states to steer up to $1.2 billion more in federal funding toward special education needs. Many advocates for the disabled complain that this commitment from Washington is inadequate. (In New York City alone, where disabled students comprise less than 13 percent of the school population, the annual cost for special ed is an estimated $2 billion, or nearly one-quarter of total education spending.) But more money will not fix the myriad problems with this fundamentally flawed government mandate. A recent case in Seattle is illustrative. The Seattle Times reported last weekend that the city school district paid a woman $180,000 to keep her blind, autistic son out of the public system. The 16-year-old boy had injured a bus driver, a school aide and several teachers. In fact, the Times noted: "He got off to a stormy start, head-butting a special-education teacher on his first visit. The teacher said the boy also grabbed a knife from a table and went after his mother, who wrestled it away from him." Why were Seattle officials (or rather, taxpayers) forced into the unprecedented position of having to pay the mother off to remove the troubled boy from campus? Because IDEA effectively bars schools from disciplining and expelling disabled students for disruptive behavior, whether or not that behavior is related to their disability and whether or not the disability was diagnosed before the disruptive incident took place. To make matters worse, former President Clinton enacted changes to IDEA's definition of disability to include just about any kid with an attitude problem. It has been a boondoggle for lawyers and child psychologists-for-hire, and a nightmare for teachers and administrators. The unfortunate Southeast Delco School District in Pennsylvania, for example, took a double blow when one special-ed student (who showed "aggression with peers") set fire to a school cafeteria two years ago -- and then won a federal lawsuit last month blaming
the school for violating his rights under IDEA. In Richmond County, Ga., a special ed student repeatedly urinated on his classmates because he understood he couldn't be disciplined like his peers. In Fairfax County, Va., a student who brought a loaded gun to school with his friends went unpunished (and bragged about it) because he had been diagnosed with a "weakness in written language skills." Special-education teachers in Missouri complained to legislators that they suffer great abuse under IDEA, and that compliance requirements leave them unable to tend to pressing educational needs. IDEA's concept of "mainstreaming" is based not on sound science, but on political science. Zealous activists, embracing a radical egalitarian agenda, pushed for the integration of all disabled kids into the public schools at all costs. But is such forced and illusory "inclusion" worth the price? In the Seattle case, the disabled student had been thriving in a separate program specially designed for handicapped children. His violent rages had been reduced dramatically. When he was "mainstreamed" into the public high school, however, his condition worsened. The school district used federal IDEA funds to put the boy in a padded basement room for months. Other students ridiculed him as "the kid in the cage." The boy had no credible curriculum and no competent teachers -- just a bunch of glorified baby-sitters and security guards who generated paperwork for the federal education bureaucracy. IDEA has failed to integrate the most severely disabled students into regular public schools, redefined "disabled" to encompass incorrigible troublemakers, hamstrung school districts trying to enact effective discipline and encouraged frivolous litigation. President Bush should walk the talk of educational accountability: For the sake of the children, don't fund bad ideas. Fix them first.