Bottom line for special ed

It’s hard to imagine a more will-motivated effort than the special education program in our nation’s public schools. As profiled in a two-part series in last week’s Review, the program’s aim is lofty indeed – educating students with physical, mental and emotional handicaps to the same level as their peers.

Yet as the stories reported, good intentions have frequently given way to frustration and doubts on Bainbridge Island. Some parents claim the school district is not doing what is necessary to fulfill the federal mandate of an “appropriate” education. District officials cite limitations in the indispensable resources of money and trained personnel. The teachers themselves, caught in the middle of disputes that too frequently end up in court, get burned out by the contentiousness.

This may be an example of the federal government at both its best and its worst. Congress saw a problem – the tragic waste of the lives and talents of handicapped children – and it responded in 1975 with a federal mandate to free public education of the disabled.

But Congress did not think through the details of exactly how much educational assistance was to be provided. Rather, it enunciated broad objectives, then left the specifics up to the courts by giving parents the right to sue for the assistance to which they think their child is entitled.

Worse yet, Congress walked away from the funding. Originally, the commitment was that the federal government would pay 40 percent of the cost. That was later amended to cap federal costs at 40 percent, and in fact, the federal share is now roughly 12 percent.

The Washington Legislature has shouldered much of the burden, to the tune of over $500 million per year. Figuring that it costs about twice as much to educate a disabled child as a non-disabled one, Olympia provides almost as much additional funding per disabled student at it does for a Basic Education Grant that goes to each student, disabled or not.

So how much does special education cost the Bainbridge district? No one is quite sure, because there is no uniform accounting system, and while some costs are easily assignable to special education, other costs are not. Moreover, the lack of uniform accounting makes it impossible to compare the special education costs of various districts in any meaningful way.

This lack of of what might be called “accounting-ability” has been its own source of friction. Some say that special education is actually a profit center for the Bainbridge District, which dips into its special-ed allotments for general education purposes.

Others say that exactly the reverse is true, and that the district has to tap its general education fund to keep up with the special-ed program.

Thankfully, this situation may at least improve. Prodded by a legislative task force, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is imposing uniform accounting and reporting. While that won’t answer all of the questions about costs, it will at least make cross-district comparisons possible, which comparisons will provide at least some circumstantial indications of problems in a given district.

Special education is about altruism, about equality, about opportunity and about human dignity. But the unfortunate reality is that the program is also about money – how much to spend how, and for what benefit.

The Bainbridge Island School District, our state and our nation need to engage in serious and overdue deliberations about the program. For that debate to be meaningful, we need to know the facts about the costs in the most consistent and honest way possible.

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