Paying For Special Ed

Our View: Public Schools Must Provide Better Services For Kids With Special Needs

April 28, 2009

One of the most vexing and heart-rending decisions parents of children with disabilities must make involves what to do when the public schools aren't working for them. The federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act requires local school districts to devote substantial resources to special-ed programs, and Congress and the courts have made it clear that every child has a right to a "free appropriate public education." But when the public schools fail to meet a child's needs, many parents seek help from private institutions - and hope the state will pick up the tab.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments over when school districts are obliged to pay for educating children with special needs in private settings. Parents say their children can't wait for the public schools to improve and nonpublic placements offer more experienced teachers and staff and a better learning environment. Public school officials counter that funding private school tuitions drains resources from special-ed students who remain in the system; they say parents should be required to give public schools a chance before asking local governments to pony up for expensive nonpublic placements.

In Baltimore, for example, there are nearly 14,000 students with disabilities, of whom 746 require placements in private schools and institutions at a total cost of $46,193,781 - a significant chunk of the school system's $1.1 billion budget. But it also has been involved in a lengthy federal lawsuit over the quality of programming for children with special needs, and improvements have been slow to come.

One way to reduce the number of private placements of children with special needs is to improve the overall quality of teaching in both the special-education programs and the general curriculum. Baltimore already has begun upgrading instructional quality by offering greater opportunities for staff development and incentives to retain experienced teachers. Improving the overall quality of instruction, especially in the earlier grades, means fewer kids needing special ed later on because most kids who currently require nonpublic placements have histories of severe behavior problems that prevent them from realizing their potential. Fewer kids needing special ed also would free up resources to more effectively serve those who still have problems.

Whatever the court decides in this case, funding special education will remain a problem until some form of comprehensive education reform is enacted. Private institutions will never be able to make up for the failures of large numbers of public school special-ed programs that don't work. What's needed are across-the-board improvements in public education that also include raising the quality of instruction and services offered to children with special needs.

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