Sunday, July 11, 2010

Something about democracy and the public schools

I was going to write about health care today, but while perusing other special needs blogs, I found my topic: special education and the big to-do about the obviously outrageous amount of taxpayer dollars that are directed toward the apparently undeserving.  I have Erika at The Flight of Our Hummingbird to thank for directing my attention to this.

Erika is as shocked as I am.  Not, you must understand, at the incredible "waste" of federal, state, and local tax dollars, but at the behavior of our fellow human beings.  Having lived through 12 years now of special needs parenting, I am somewhat less shocked than Erika, I confess, but no less upset.

The controversy du jour is the New York Times front page article of June 19, "A Struggle to Educate the Severely Disabled," reported by Sharon Otterman.  I originally read the article on the day it was published and felt that Ms. Otterman actually did a fine job reporting the dimensions of the problem of educating a child with multiple disabilities.  Extreme educating, as it were.  Ms. Otterman's article focuses on a single student, Donovan, and the reactions of his mother, his aides, his teachers, administrators, and so on, to the difficult and humane task of providing him with an education.  All of the persons quoted in the article are empathetic to the needs of special education students, none of them feel Donovan shouldn't be educated, and none of them have cost concerns--they differ only in the methods of addressing Donovan's needs.

However, Ms. Otterman would not be a diligent reporter if she didn't bring up the cost context of educating these students: number of students served nationwide, breakdown between students with severe disabilities and the rest of the special ed population, budgets, etc.  Although, dear reader, she is not in the least judgmental.

But that didn't stop NYTimes readers from putting on their crazy goggles.  You know, the ones with the spirals that sproing out of the lenses.  There was screaming in the comments section.  There was arm flapping.  There were people lying on the ground in hysterics, pounding their fists and kicking their feet. There were people grabbing the public budget bowl and tugging at it, screeching, "MINE!!!!"  There were misspellings and grammatical contusions.  In fact, if I didn't know better, I'd've thought I was sitting in one of the special ed classrooms these aggrieved readers were floridly describing, rampant and multiplying across the Yoo-nited States of America.

Can you believe it?  In this country we're educating people with disabilities?  Why aren't they in institutions? They're in our schools???  One gentleman said, well, he'd just euthanize any kid of his who turned out that way rather than provide a drain on the public good.  Others apparently said the taxpayers shouldn't pay for this, just the parents 'who chose to bring those kids into this world' (excuse me, I missed the memo?  I'm supposed to be punished because I had a disabled kid?  but then again, I don't speak fluent Kra-Z).

The disabled are coming!  The disabled are coming!  screamed these newly patriotic Paul Reveres, and they're going to take away your children's educations!!  That's why there's no music education and the gifted students are left to grovel in the mud at the doors of alehouses, begging for pencils!!

Um, no.  Yer gifted students and the music teachers are left out in the cold cuz y'all don't want to pay no state and local taxes.  The feds are just there to make sure you don't further discriminate against the disabled and minority populations.  Oh, yeah, and to lard you with testing mandates.  Forgot that for a minute.

This is the culprit sentence from the article, tenth paragraph in, first page of a five web-page article:
There are 132,000 such students in the United States, out of more than 6.5 million now receiving some kind of special education service at an estimated cost of $74 billion a year.
How far do you think most people read before leaving a comment?

Let me parse that for you, because that's a sentence with a lot of information: out of 6.5 million students with IEPs in the public system, there are only 132,000 students with severe (multiple) disabilities.  The total cost of special education for all 6.5 million students is $74 billion per year.

This reading is confirmed by the reporter here (that's right, just scroll down to the bottom).

I would here like to raise my hand and say that, of that 6.5 million, most are kids you'd be pressed hard to ID as "different" if you met them at the park.  Geez, in some circles, if you say, "special ed," the thought bubbles over people's heads just show an image of someone drooling.  Makes me want to just wipe a finger across Robert's drool, touch it to their cheeks and shout, "cooties!"

But back to the Sentence of Outrage.  So 132,000 kids like Robert enrolled in the public schools nationwide.  In Maryland, where I live, the Montgomery County Public School System (MCPS) enrolls 142,000 students.  So approximately one county's worth of students with multiple disabilities are in the U.S. K-12 system.

How many counties are there in the U.S.?  3,140 counties or county-like entities (parishes, etc.), says the U.S. Census.  (Although this number may be low, as I think some governors decided to let counties elect on an individual basis not to participate in the census this year, even though it means they won't get any federal funding for their schools.)

So this means that, on the average, each county in the U.S. educates 42 students with severe disabilities.  There are 200 schools in the MCPS system.  That's 0.21 severely disabled students, or actually, pieces of a student, per school across the entire K-12 spectrum.  Put another way, only 20 percent of schools nationwide enroll even a single student with multiple disabilities.

I know that MCPS is a suburban school system, and relatively populous compared to the counties around us.  But there are lots of populous counties in the U.S. and lots of other counties that are rural.  So let's just bump that figure up to 30 percent of all K-12 schools nationwide enroll at least one student with severe disabilities.

You may say that might represent a burden for a rural school district in Alabama.  Well, have I introduced you to my Uncle Sam?  He steps in and provides federal tax dollars to help you out with that cost, just to level the playing field.  And let me explain something else--the majority of those federal tax dollars come from people in the high-population states that pay the lion's share of taxes to the federal till, like New York and New Jersey.

So, look at it this way--once again, the people of New York City are footing the bill for the education of a poor disabled kid in Alabama.  Think of that.  Those people are bleeding heart liberals, anyway.  And they have the gall to complain about it in the New York Times.  Hmmm, if all those readers actually lived in NYC, I guess they'd have a point.


I could stop there, but I feel the need to go on.  The odd thing is that the comments section is completely focused on cost, but the article isn't.  Which just goes to show you that the Zero Sum Game Theory of education is alive and well in Crazyland.  You would think the people of the United States were a bunch of Russian peasants muttering into their ragged clothes as the czar rode by pulling a carriage filled with kids in wheelchairs.  If kids in wheelchairs are getting anything, that's a sure sign that something's being taken away from Your Kid.

But, again, I digress.  The main thread of the article follows the story of Donovan and his mother, who eventually institutionalizes him because she can't work and care for him at the same time.  She continues to visit him and play a role in his education, i.e., be a parent.  Her concerns are that his educational needs are being made a priority when his behavioral and social and physical therapy needs are getting less attention.

These are valid concerns.  But they are the concerns of an individual parent relative to an individual child.  I don't walk in those shoes, so who am I to impose my views of education for Robert on Donovan?  Although, to address the concerns of the commenters, who all seem to think that institutionalization is cheaper than having a kid go to public school (a whole building built to house 42 students per county?  With nurses and therapists as staff?  Really?  Cheaper?), physical therapy COSTS A LOT and that's probably why Donovan's physical therapy is somewhat limited.

But why shouldn't parents be able to choose the sort of education they'd like for their child with disabilities?  Some parents do want to care for their kids at home.  Some don't think the public school system is a good fit.  Some parents want more life skills, less algebra.  And some parents see a spark in their child.  Some parents understand that their child will always need an attendant and that child is not going to be able to wash his own face anyway, so why not be exposed to Romeo and Juliet?  Why not learn about basic science?  Why not give my child something to think about?  Why not let my child in the classroom with his peers, creating better behavioral and social models?  Don't we make a big deal in this country about people making their own choices?  Something about freedom, right?

Let me tell you--way back, some at MCPS were dead set on enrolling Robert at Stephen Knolls School, a de facto institution for severely disabled children and not truly a school.  I said no. Robert was and is social and enjoys very much the company of his peers--and they love him for his perseverance.  I got a letter once from one of the smartest kids in Robert's class saying that Robert served as a role model for him--Robert always tried, no matter what, and he kept going, no matter what, against the odds and against all circumstances.

When I walked into the door of Stephen Knolls one day, supposedly to pick something up and look around, all I heard was screaming.  It was a big school that catered to the lowest common denominator.  I walked out and never went back.

If you take any group of people with supposed similarities and lump them together, what you'll get is an intensification, most likely of things you'd rather not have.  Put severely disabled children together in a school or an institution without other kids there to demonstrate typical social behavior and you'll just get screaming as there was at Stephen Knolls--what you'd expect of the disabled, right?

But children pay attention to others around them.  Put kids into classrooms with aides and they'll learn a lot more from their peers about moderating themselves than they'll ever learn from a school like Stephen Knolls where the expectations are much lower.  Will it be perfect?  Probably not, but maybe you'll have more people who can be mainstreamed into society after graduation.  Institutions, I hate to tell you, are not cheap.

It's the same thing for people with opinions.  Put a lot of like-minded people in a room and give them a controversial topic to discuss and soon there'll be screaming and people shouting about getting their guns (or their lawyers, depends on the crowd). Mix it up a little and people are going to watch what they say a bit more.  And some people will find common ground and some won't.

That's America.  That's democracy.


A said...

Go, Jeneva! Actually, I'm incredulous that there are only 132,000 severely multiply handicapped
students---a number so low that I think we can safely say this isn't a numbers game at all, but something else entirely, based on qualities the article didn't even begin to approach.

Elizabeth said...

Once again, an incredible piece. Did you submit it? I wish that you could find out the emails of all those assholes that made such outrageous comments after that article and email all of them.

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