Education Policy Proposal #3: Repeal IDEA

I’ve gone through the low-hanging fruit of my ideas for presidential campaign education policies. Now we’re into the changes that take on laws and Supreme Court decisions.

And so this dive into “special education”, the mother of all ed spending sinkholes.

We’ve been living in the world of IDEA for forty years. IDEA forces the states to provide free and appropriate education to all disabled students in the least restrictive environment.

Special ed is the poster child for primer #5 and the courts’ unthinking disregard for costs. In most special ed cases, the courts read the law in the manner most favorable to the parents, who don’t have to pay court costs if they win, even if the losing school or district operated in good faith.

While IDEA promises that the federal government will pay 40% of sped services, the feds have never coughed up more than 15-20% while always telling the states to pay more. What’s more? Well, in 2013, the federal allocation for special education was $12.8 billion. That’s less than a fifth.

States all have varying percentages of special education students, which suggests that classifications are more opinion than diagnosis. But regardless of the definition, research hasn’t revealed any promising practices to give those with mild learning disabilities higher test scores or better engagement. And that’s just where academic improvement might be possible. In many cases, expensive services are provided with no expectation of academic improvement.

“Special ed” is a huge, complex canvas of services, and definitions invoke thoughts of the five blind guys and a camel so far as the public is concerned, so it may not mean what you think it means. The feds collect data on the following narrow definitions but most general education teachers think in terms of broad categories:

  1. Learning disabilities: ADHD, executive function, auditory processing.

  2. Emotional disturbances/mental illness: See definition
  3. Physical handicaps: wheelchairs, blindness, diabetes, and the ilk. No cognitive issues.
  4. Moderate mental handicaps: The highest of the low IQs, or educable.
  5. Severely handicapped: Eventual institution inhabitants, or assisted living. At best, “trainable”. At worst, this.

The role of special ed teacher varies, but they all have one common role: overseeing compliance. Their jobs have a substantial paperwork burden: producing the Individualized Education Plans in accordance with federal law. They schedule and run the review meetings, deliver IEPs to gen ed teachers.

High school special ed teachers for group 1 can’t be academically knowledgeable in all subjects, so they are basically case managers who run study halls, a full period that designated special ed kids can use to complete tests or do homework (or do nothing, as is often the case). They also do much of the assessment work for initiating IEPs. In this, they are akin to life-coaches or social workers. Since they are working with a lower level of academics, elementary sped teachers are more likely to be instructing students, whether in in self-contained classrooms designing easier lessons for students with mild learning disabilities, or in a pull-out class that would be called “study hall” in high school.

Group 1 sped teachers also manage group 3 student plans (e.g., wheelchair bound, diabetics) with no cognitive disabilities. These students, who don’t usually have study halls, are also more likely to be handled with 504 plans. They need health or access accommodations, often have expensive aides to see to their needs during the day. Other handicaps (visual, auditory) usually require a specialist credentialed in that disability, as well as an IEP.

Mildly retarded and emotionally troubled students (groups 2 and 4) are usually in self-contained classrooms by high school. They have little contact with general ed students on average, and are taught middle school level material by a special education teacher. At the elementary school level, general ed and special ed teachers share these responsibilities (here’s where the inclusion and mainstreaming debates are the sharpest).

Teachers who work with group 5 “students” at any age are providing specialized day care.

All sped teachers work with a wide range of aides, from those who help handicapped kids use the bathrooms, to those who lead blind children around, to those who help relate to the emotionally disturbed kids to those who babysit severely disabled children who can’t walk, talk, or relate on a scale handled by k-12.

I say none of this to be dismissive or cruel. Sped teachers I work with (the case managers with study halls) and their aides are caring and realistic; sped teachers who work with mentally limited students are incredibly gifted and dedicated, in my experience. But a massive chunk of them are not doing what we would normally refer to as teaching, and in another world we’d be able to question whether we are getting our money’s worth generating paperwork for the feds.

I don’t want to make feds the only bogeyman here. States are greedy for federal dollars, and special education spending gets more expensive each year for reasons unknown. Education has been put under tremendous additional constraints over the past 40 years, and the states should be asking why the hell they are forced to pour funds into a service that takes precedence over all the other needs in their district. Why should they be paying for aides to change diapers instead of giving study halls for disadvantaged kids who struggle academically? Why are they spending teacher head count and sections on study halls and case managers—especially since no evidence shows that pull outs and extended time improves academic outcomes of kids with executive function issues?

One (or more!) of the Republican candidates (pretty much has to be Republican) should emblazon “REPEAL IDEA” on his education policy webpage.

He could call it “state choice”.

Sure. Let states decide how to provide education, special or general. All special education services won’t instantly appear on the chopping block. But not having the federal courts hanging over every parent’s demands, cheerfully adding zeros to every expense, they might…well, trim. After a while, even cut.

Remember, many disabled students are still protected with 504 plans, which aren’t part of IDEA. Moreover, there’s this other federal law that doesn’t hesitate to interfere in state and local affairs if judges feel that people with disabilities aren’t getting their due. But allow states to decide if they want to bow to judges wishes in public schools, or provide separate facilities, without the anvils of FAPE and LRE mandates hanging over them.

Let the states and voters decide how to provide services for those students who can’t be educated within the K-12 framework, and how much support to give students with learning disabilities as opposed to disadvantaged students, arts education–or hey, even exceptionally bright students. If these services were left to the states, parents and other disability advocates could duke it out with other parent interests. And if some districts want to cut some special education services to keep the athletic teams, then states can decide based on the PR/Twitter storms, not federal law. (notice the line about “Athletics represent one of the largest costs that the school system carries that isn’t mandated by law.”? Think Fairfax parents would trade in some sped study halls for a football team?)

I make this sound so easy, don’t I? New York City alone has something like 38,000 special ed teachers. The National Association of Special Education Teachers will not be pleased. Nor will the teachers’ unions, I’m thinking.

But actual teachers? the rest of them? Maybe not quite so unhappy. Teachers see lines drawn and services provided to sped kids with no academic issues when gen ed kids who struggle academically get no services because they don’t have a disability, or economically disadvantaged kids who don’t qualify for special education resources, extra time, and study halls but could clearly benefit. Furthermore, elementary teachers are often….unenthused about the required inclusion of moderately to severely disabled students they have to cope with and pretend to educate in addition to their usual rambunctious kids with an already wide range of abilities.

Naturally, any teacher displeasure pales next to the onslaught of sped parental fury at the notion of killing IDEA, the massive anvil they have on the scales when making demands of their schools for their kids.

Kill SPED! doesn’t have the same ring or instant recognition of Ban College Remediation! or Bring Back Tracking!

But special education mandates are not only shockingly pricey straitjackets on schools, but a forcibly applied value system that many Americans don’t entirely share, at least not when it comes to stripping resources from their public schools. Politicians who face down the inevitable shaming attempts that would accompany this proposal could really open up the debate to reveal what Americans really want in their education system, as opposed to services they’ve been forced to pay for.

Next up, the really hard-core option to consider: Make K-12 Education Citizens Only.

About educationrealist

38 responses to “Education Policy Proposal #3: Repeal IDEA

  • Jacob

    The longest comment thread I ever got myself involved with on the Internet was me arguing that nobody understood how much special education costs because the funds are both drawn from and spent in so many different places, and people responding, “why do you hate disabled kids?”

  • vijay

    As a followup to Jacob, is there a way to calculate the total cost per student attributable to special education, or special education cost as a function of total education budget in any school district. I am not arguing your case here, just just trying to find what that budget increase due to special ed.

  • WOAH

    Are there any ballpark numbers on how much money we spend on SPED stuff?

  • Retired

    It’s hard to imagine even talking about this without getting immediately ostracized. Right up there with Voldemort. We’ve all known about the sped sinkhole for a long time. Then throw in the SSI.
    I would start with shutting down the fed dept of education. Then at least red states would have a fighting chance to return control to the locals. Cali? No chance.

  • anonymousse

    Completely off topic, but if you’re interested, I’d be interested in your take on the following issue: celebrity culture in high school.

    First, a thought experiment: suppose you were newly single, and decided to look for a new spouse/mate. You could go looking in many different places, and many different ways. Would you go to a local sports bar where NFL players are known to hang out, and try to find a romantic partner there (assume you are not an NFL player yourself).

    I’d have to guess not merely no, but of course not. In essence, you wouldn’t be competitive in that environment. You would go to places (other bars, internet, setups from friends) in which you would meet people like yourself.

    Yet high school is in essence a sports bar (note: I’m using ‘NFL’ as a stand-in for all celebrities-perhaps some schools value basketball or baseball: perhaps some value something else). The entire culture in modern high schools is aimed at rewarding and idolizing the celebrities in the school-with obligatory pep rallies, with ‘dress up day’ for the cheerleaders and lettermen, with the high point of the band being marching at football games, and so on.

    This is objectively insane for everyone other than the football players (and top cheerleaders) themselves. In essence, you are saying to the 75-90% of kids who aren’t celebrities: “go to this environment where you are a second class citizen, as defined by everyone, including the administration and adults in the school, and thrive and be happy. Have fun!!!”

    What’s more: this is only true for high school itself. In college, you slowly shed that high school celebrity worship culture (while athletes are stars on campuses, they are pretty isolated from the student body at large: engineers hang out with other engineers, for instance. Only athletes and the women who want to sleep with athletes interact with athletes). This is even more true for professional sports: professional athletes have nothing to do with most people’s lives other than as icons that appear on television all the time.

    So young adulthood is to a large degree a growth period in which people shed and outgrow the unhealthy culture they thought was normative when they were 15-18 years old.

    As an adult looking back, I find it bizarre that we as a society find this to be a ‘good’ way to teach our kids. And among all the things you talk about with regards to healthy education policy, I as a parent (of a non-athletic kids) am as concerned with this culture as I am with the more arcane discussions you have regarding spending policies, special education, and standardized testing.


    • Retired

      We sent our kid to a charter school, in part to avoid this culture. I sure didn’t like it when I was in HS a zillion years ago.

  • Crimson Wife

    It is more cost-effective to spend money on special education than on prisons and welfare for adults.

    We are spending a tremendous amount of our own money and energy on providing therapy and remediation for our youngest child in addition to what we receive through the school district. Whenever I get a big bill, I think of how expensive it would be to continue to support her if she is unable to live independently and hold down a job as an adult. The more early intervention we do now, the more her brain can rewire itself to help overcome her disabilities and the better the long-term outcomes.

    As a taxpayer, I don’t want us to be “penny wise but pound foolish”.

    • educationrealist

      But that’s something you can argue with at the state level, because states are responsible for both education and law & order. So make the argument to the people. The federal government has basically given parents like you a club to demand more resources than other parents–in areas that are entirely state affairs. You should have to argue for your dollars, not get them just because the feds like your reasons better than other parents’.

      • vijay

        At the county level, not state!

        Consider Maryland or Virginia. The goals of Montgomery (or Fairfax) county is so different from Baltimore City or Oakland (or Buckingham county). Even worse we have an upcounty consortium and non consortium split in schools. The sate is mandating things which cannot be met in rural county/inner city school level. For that matter, what montgomery county mandates cannot be even met in consortium school level.

      • SEATAF

        My concern would be that without national standards for special ed, states would be in a race to the bottom.

      • educationrealist

        Probably. There’s no reason why special education should be singled out for protection on that basis. Maybe a state would rather spend money on other priorities.

  • Big Bill

    So what is the federal club? What do the feds do to force compliance? Do they threaten to withhold other federal education monies if schools do not provide IDEA services?

  • RationalExpressions

    The third rail of education spending. I would guesstimate that districts spend about a third of their soft money on SPED. And that is never enough.

  • RationalExpressions

    I hadn’t been checking your blog often due to my busyness and probably yours (paucity of new posts), so it’s great to see you back, and firing on all cylinders. Great work with this series.

    • educationrealist

      Yeah, I got swamped for much of the year and then got fired up on this plan. I’ve got #4 done, and I’ve got an easier schedule next year. I’m not really excited about that except it will leave me more time for writing. Thanks for the good words.

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