Future of Special Education
M.C. Cohen and Mike Salek
a political or academic perspective, special education is a complex
topic to be discusses and debated. For millions of students and
their families it is a harsh daily reality filled with frustrations
daughter and I are involved in an endless routine of tests, meetings,
and school placements; it’s really a horror show,” said a mother
of a special education student. “She still doesn’t have a school
that she can call home.”
It is now almost 30 years since PL 94-142, the landmark legislation
of 1975 (The Education for All Handicapped Children Act) was enacted
to prevent the exclusion of children with disabilities from schools
and to ensure that they received a free, appropriate, and individualized
education. Now, special education is changing. It is in the hands
of politicians who are debating its future. Having undergone several
revisions since 1975, at this time the Bush administration has
appointed a 16 member commission to recommend changes to PL 101-476,
the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, better known
as IDEA (the “great grand child” of PL 94-142). The committee
is expected to detail their findings in the spring of 2002.
The President is urging congressional leaders to answer an ominous
question: Why is 40 percent of the education budget spent on 11
percent of all students, those in special education?
IDEA has yet to fulfill its promise,”said Education Secretary
Roderick R. Paige in a testimony before the House Education and
Workforce Committee on Oct. 4. “The doors are open, but the system
still denies too many students the opportunity to reach high academic
Since 1975, the number of special education students nationally
has increased from about 3.3 million students to its current swell
of a little over six million–nearly an 82 percent increase. In
New York City alone, 85,000 students out of 1.1 million are enrolled
in special education–12.94 percent of its student body. The monetary
figures are just as staggering. Students in special education
cost on the average 2.3 times as much as general education students
– an average of $13,000 per special education student versus $6,200
for all others.
More revealing than the money and the sheer number of students
in special education is the over-representation of minority students
placed in special education programs. According to Paige, 2.2
percent of black students are identified as being mentally retarded,
a rate nearly three times that of whites. In addition, 1.3 percent
of black students are labeled emotionally disturbed, almost twice
the rate for whites.
A study conducted recently by New York University’s Jay Gottleib,
Ph.D and Mark Alter, Ph.D. of the Steinhardt School of Education
revealed similar findings in Palm Beach County, Florida. The principal
investigators showed that although black students represent about
30 percent of the total student population in Palm Beach County,
they make up 62 percent of students classified as educable mentally
handicapped, and 53 percent of students classified as emotionally
The basic tenet of special education is meeting a student’s individual
needs. Each student in special education receives an Individual
Education Plan (IEP), which details his/her strengths, needs,
and educational goals for the year. Optimally, students are placed
in the school in which they can receive the appropriate education.
education has accomplished a lot by providing services and positive
approaches, even though these students have been traditionally
segregated from general education,” said Dr. Beth Mount, a national
consultant to education programs and adult services.
Typically, special education students have been taught separately
from their general education peers to meet their needs. However,
according to IDEA, special education students are guaranteed the
right to be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE).
This means that according to their abilities and needs students
should be placed in their neighborhood schools, along with their
general education peers.
Often the concept of a least restrictive environment is
falsely associated directly with the physical space of a classroom
or school. Actually, Lou Brown, a special education scholar and
pioneer, argued that “special education is a service, and not
a place.” Some scholars believe that ideally all kids should be
in the process of working towards education in the most inclusive
A Quick Fix?
an education model where special education students spend their
entire day in a general education classroom, may be the quick
fix sought by policy makers. To get the support services they
need, these students receive assistance from a special education
teacher in the regular class. This practice is an outgrowth from
the Regular Education Initiative (REI -1986), and remains a hotly
debated topic. Presently, the inclusion supporters have made headway,
as inclusion is becoming a more common practice in education.
is an assumption that the least restrictive environment for an
appropriate education is general education,” said Professor Alter,
New York University’s Chair of the Department of Teaching and
Learning. Experts in the field have speculated that if Bush’s
appointees are looking for more efficient use of money, they may
see inclusion as a means of doing so. More money may be diverted
to regular education once special education students are included.
The idea is that all students would benefit. Special education
students would get the support and services they need, while general
education students get the benefit of an enriched environment.
Yet, the question remains: It makes fiscal sense, but does it
make educational sense?
question is, how will students with a range of abilities do in
a general education classroom?” said Alter. “What is the criteria
for progress: IEP goals or standardized test score? There tends
to be an absence of instructional accountability to make decisions
regarding progress of individuals as well as groups”.
Proponents of inclusion believe that students with disabilities
will benefit from a non-segregated environment, and at the same
time students without disabilities will learn to share a learning
environment with a diverse group of peers.
Yet, implementing inclusion is complicated. For example, “in their
efforts to properly implement inclusion, New Jersey has nearly
eliminated special education labels,” said Dr. Jerry G. Petroff,
Program Specialist for the New Jersey State Education Department.
“However, in order to receive federal funding for students the
state must categorize students as eligible or non-eligible for
special education services.”
States fund the bulk of monies allocated to special education
programs, even though the federal government promised to provide
40 percent of this funding in 1975 when the law was first enacted.
Complicating matters even more, IDEA guarantees that special education
students have access to the general education curriculum and education
classes. But, this is not always happening.
your local school,” said Dr. Carole Gothelf, principal of the
Guild School “and than see how many children who require special
services are in general education classrooms.”
The one thing that is clear is that Bush’s task force has their
work cut out for them.
education is based on a homogeneous model, while special education
is driven by individual students needs,” said Alter.
So, as the President’s task force begins to consider how to build
a better educational system it is clear that bridging together
the two educational systems is anything but simple.
For inclusion to work as it was intended to, the entire general
education system must be revamped,” said Petroff. “We need to
accommodate all students and all of their needs, not just special
education students. Each child deserves to be treated as a unique
Cohen and Michael Salek are teachers at The Jewish Guild for the
Blind’s Harriet and Robert Heilbrium School in New York City.
Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001. Tel:
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