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Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 2001 / 18 Elul, 5761

Dr. Michael A. Glueck

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Consumer Reports

A national disgrace: Failed funding of special education for the disabled -- THE school bells are ringing. For most students and parents this means a lump in the throat, a flutter in the chest, queasy feelings in the stomach and twinges of separation anxiety. Others students and parents don't have it quite that easy.

The September start brings additional heartache for disabled students and their parents. While the federal government, state, school administrators, superintendents, courts and attorneys dance, prance and lance each other -- those least able to speak out for themselves -- get caught in the middle. These youngsters are not at fault for our failures to deal with issues we find unpleasant and don't want to talk about.

This is a national disgrace!

In 1975 Congress promised to pay 40 percent of the cost of special education and reaffirmed this commitment in 1994, 1999 and 2000. In fact during the past 26 years Congress has provided only eight percent of the cost. The failure of Congress to keep its 26 year old promise is undermining efforts at educational reform.

As a result in California $1.0 billion or more is transferred from regular education to special education each year. If Congress only kept its promise California would receive $1.8 billion annually, enough to eliminate the $1 billion deficit and allow the additional state funds to be used for school construction, teacher training, new teacher recruitment, and purchase of more books and supplies.

Orange County, California, is representative of other counties in many states. As an example, for Orange County, federal funding at 40 percent would mean an additional $80 million. On April 6, 2000 the Orange County Grand Jury issued a report titled, "The disabling of Public education in Orange County," setting forth the impact of the federal government's failure to fund special education in Orange County schools.

According to Orange County Superintendent of Schools, Bill Habermehl, "The costs for disabled students have dramatically skyrocketed in the last 26 years. In 1975 there were relatively few disabled students in the public schools. Many were kept at home for a variety of reasons. Now with the schools in Orange County following strict federal mandates more parents send their disabled children to the public schools." Not only have the feds been delinquent in funding but they have not compensated for the immense escalation of costs -- a double steal.

Currently in Orange County schools funding for the disabled is provided 60 percent from the state and 15 percent from the federal government with the difference made up from funds allocated for the regular students. This unintended consequence is not fair to the regular or special education children.

It is expected the problem will escalate in terms of the numbers of children affected and the fiscal encroachment on the general budgets of the school district. The House of Representatives passed legislation authorizing additional funds over a 10-year period to bring funding up to a 40 percent level for special education. However, this is not an actual appropriation, they must still appropriate the funds.

Critics argue that too much money is already wasted without measurable results. They may be right. However, as with many government programs, Congress provides us with unfunded strict mandates and then complains when the program fails. PERHAPS IF CONGRESS PROVIDED LESS RED TAPE AND RIGID MICRO-MANAGED GUIDELINES AND MORE OF THE PROMISED FUNDING -- THE PROGRAM WOULD WORK. In addition the school districts would not have to rob Peter to pay Paul!

Understandably this is a very difficult, gut wrenching and emotional issue for us all. Few people think ecactly alike on this issue. But I think it is wrong to throw out our babies with the bath water. In this, the richest country in the world, we must provide care for our disabled children. Their future depends on our collective compassion and concern. We must learn to think with our hearts and minds so that these special children may develop their minds and be part of society.

How about supporting local autonomy for schools and letting locals and parents decide how to allocate the funds. If all the education funding were sent to the states or school districts in one nice big pot, then it could be divvied up based on the actual needs of that state, county or district.

This is a program that has been promised funds for 26 years and one harmed by broken promises. The feds should sit up, fess up, and pay up. If Congress would hold up their part of the bargain and get out of the way this would allow the states, districts, administrators, schools and teachers to do a better job for all our children!

Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., of Newport Beach, CA., writes on healthcare, disability and mental health reform and allied issues locally and nationally. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Michael A. Glueck