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Back to Sept. Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 200 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS SEPTEMBER 2002

Perpetuating a Bad IDEA
Can the special ed law be reformed?
WASHINGTON, DC - The 25-year-old Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is up for congressional reauthorization, and a new bill is expected to be drafted this month in the U.S. House of Representatives. A final version may not emerge before the congressional recess in October.

Some critics believe IDEA is too flawed to be reformed because it has failed to provide disabled children with the "free appropriate public education" it promised when enacted in 1975. Instead, they say, it has become a bureaucratic nightmare that lowers teacher morale, encourages litigation, and "marginalizes the parents it was designed to empower." Even supporters admit that IDEA has created a complex and expensive quagmire of rules and regulations, with ever-increasing costs and administrative demands.

A Cato Institute Policy Analysis entitled Escaping IDEA, Freeing Parents, Teachers, and Students through Deregulation and Choice, dated July 10, 2002 states: "Though well intended, IDEA wastes resources, increases costs and creates contention between parents and school officials. The $78.3 billion spent on special education students at local, state, and federal levels accounts for 21.4% of the $360.2 billion spent on elementary and secondary public education in the United States."

Cato recommends that special education "be reformed to allow parents to control how their child's educational dollars are spent in the public or private school of their choice."

The LD Label  
According to Manhattan Institute for Policy Research Senior Fellow Jay P. Greene, "Almost the entire increase in special education enrollments can be attributed to a rise in one category, called 'specific learning disability.'" The number of students so identified "has more than tripled, from 1.8% of the student population in 1976-77 to 6% in 1998-99."

Greene's organization concurs with Cato on the solution. "The most powerful reform would 'voucherize' all students who receive a special education diagnosis," he states.

Little Academic Benefit 
Despite IDEA's cost, the placement of increasing numbers of children in special education has not resulted in academic improvement. Economist and researcher Eric Hanushek found that children diagnosed with learning disabilities realize only small gains, "not enough to noticeably affect a learning deficit let alone eliminate it."

A new report by the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education (the Commission), entitled A New Era, concedes that "The focus on compliance and bureaucratic imperatives in the current system . . . fails too many children with disabilities."

Defining 'Disabilities' 
Minnesota education researcher, pediatrician, and board member of the Maple River Education Coalition, Karen R. Effrem, attributes the burgeoning numbers of children in special education to the fact that "mental and emotional disorders" were added to IDEA in 1991. (See www.edwatch.org/updates/062602.htm.)

"The definition of a child with a mental or emotional disability is terribly vague in the law," Effrem explains. "It is described as 'serious emotional disturbance, other health impairments or specific learning disabilities.'" For children ages 3-9, the definition is even more vague. "At the discretion of the state and the local educational agency, a child may be included who is . . . experiencing developmental delays, as defined by the state and as measured by appropriate diagnostic instruments and procedures, in one or more of the following areas: physical development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development . . ."

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the most common mental disorders in children, are in the "other health impairment" category. Dr. Effrem reports that since 1991 in Minnesota, the number of emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children has increased 136%; in the "other health impairment" category, the increase is 930% and has especially affected minority children.

A Troubling IDEA  
IDEA may benefit truly disabled children, but the law's impact on normal children is troubling. Studies show that many of those labeled with "specific learning disabilities" are simply illiterate. The introduction to the report of the President's Commission (A New Era) contains the following facts:

  • "Half of the six million children in special education are identified as having "a 'specific learning disability.'" This group "has grown 319% since 1976."  
  • "Of those with 'specific learning disabilities,' 80% are there simply because they haven't learned how to read. Thus, many children identified for special education - up to 40% - are there because they weren't taught to read . . . Sadly, few children placed in special education close the achievement gap to a point where they can read and learn like their peers."  
  • "Children of minority status are over-represented in some categories of special education. African-American children are twice as likely as white children to be labeled mentally retarded and placed in special education. They are also more likely to be labeled and placed as emotionally disturbed."

The Commission blamed "reliance on IQ tests that have known cultural bias" and "behavioral characteristics associated with the cultural context in which a child is raised" for the over-representation of minorities in special education, but its own report states that many children (presumably including minority children) are not being taught to read.

Instead of recommending intensive phonics instruction in kindergarten and first grade, one of the Commission's many recommendations for improving special education is to "screen all children for learning and behavioral difficulties in the early grades."

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with early academic screening to diagnose correctable learning problems that will prevent misidentification for special education," Dr. Effrem points out. "As a pediatrician, I strongly support this idea. Another pediatrician reported that when his ADHD-labeled patients were taught to read properly using phonics, their behavior problems disappeared." (See www.nrrf.org/article_campbell.htm)

But Effrem believes that the inaccuracy of the process of "mass and early behavioral screening and intervention," will yield "too many false positives." The likely result is that these screenings will steer children into special interventions by psychologists and social workers, and lead to medication with powerful drugs like Ritalin that have dangerous side effects.

Such "interventions" will do little to help children identified with "specific learning disabilities" when an obvious solution is for public schools to teach phonics in K-1. Research dating back to the turn of the 20th century indicates that early phonics instruction (before other methods are taught) creates good readers, and more recent research shows that minority children especially benefit from such instruction. (See Education Reporter, July 2002, and www.noexcuses.org)

Special education teacher Sandy Bowen of Topeka, Kansas told Education Reporter that the subject of phonics was "censored" at the college she attended. "If I hadn't been getting information from Focus on the Family and Eagle Forum," she stated, "I'd have thought that anyone who wanted to teach phonics was a child abuser."

When Bowen discovered that her son, then in 2nd grade, was unable to sound out words, she confronted the school, but was told to "immerse the child in literature" and he would "bloom." While the elementary school eventually returned to phonics, the boy is now a struggling reader in high school, and his parents are trying to repair the damage with Phyllis Schlafly's Turbo Reader and other phonics programs. Sandy Bowen laments that "many young men and women will graduate [from college] believing the lie that they have some sort of reading 'disorder' when in fact the 'disorder' lies in our teacher training programs."

The Drug Connection 
The labeling of children with "specific learning disabilities," and the prescribing of psychiatric drugs that often follows is of particular concern as IDEA's reauthorization looms. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), powerful psychostimulant drugs such as Ritalin were prescribed or refilled 5.3 million times during 2000, nearly double the rate in 1995-1996.

"If IDEA is fully funded, the already frightening level of child psychiatric labeling and drugging will increase exponentially," Karen Effrem worries. She recommends "a large disincentive in the law to discourage such labeling" which would help reverse this trend and support what has happened in several states.

Connecticut and Virginia have enacted laws prohibiting the recommendation of psychotropic medications to students by school personnel, and Minnesota has passed a law preventing parents from being penalized if they refuse these drugs for their children. California, New York, Florida, Arizona, Texas, and New Jersey are considering similar bills.

Effrem also believes that other academic, social and medical reasons for a child's misbehavior must be considered before medication, and that parents should be warned of the potential serious side effects of psychotropic medications before they are recommended and prescribed.

Early Childhood Connection 
The Foundations for Learning Act, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), was amended to the massive federal No Child Left Behind law signed by President Bush in January. Its purpose is "to provide mental health services to eligible children [ages 0-7] and, when necessary, to promote the child's healthy development . . ."

The Foundations for Learning Act provides federal grants to states and other agencies for preschool screenings, parent education, social services, home visits, transportation and curriculum to support "social and emotional development." A child is eligible if he "has been removed from child care, Head Start, or preschool for behavioral reasons or is at risk of being so removed" or if "the child has been exposed to parental depression or other mental illness." (Emphasis added.)

According to Dr. Effrem, "these grants will further subsidize the labeling and drugging of an alarmingly large population of young children with potent medications that have not been studied in that age group." She cites the Feb. 2000 Journal of the American Medical Association's report of a study that shows "a 300% increase in the use of psychotropics in two-to-four-year-olds between 1991 and 1995, including 3,000 prescriptions for Prozac for infants less than one year old."

"The federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in mental health and early childhood issues and its record of success for these types of programs is abysmal," Effrem states. "Head Start is the nation's oldest and largest preschool program with a mental health component and home visitation, just as the Foundations for Learning Act provides. Despite 37 years, more than $44 billion, at least 17 million children, and more than 600 studies, there is no evidence that Head Start works. According to the GAO, the Dept. of Health and Human Services and even one of Head Start's co-founders, any benefits are gone by the time the child reaches 2nd grade and these programs do not prevent later juvenile delinquency."

How does the Foundations for Learning Act relate to IDEA? According to A New Era, IDEA should be "aligned" with No Child Left Behind and other federal education laws. "IDEA should be revamped to require states to set ambitious goals for special education in alignment with the No Child Left Behind Act . . . we must insist that all students in special education make strides towards challenging and appropriate learning and developmental goals."

Dr. Effrem notes that "these 'goals' have less to do with academics than with attitudes values, behaviors and beliefs, which are not in the realm of traditional academics, but in the realm of psychiatry and psychology. The standards used to determine if a child has a specific learning disability must remain academic, as they were when IDEA was originally enacted. Then, the standards included 'basic reading skills, mathematical computation and written expression.' The new law must do more than pay lip service to these critical academic basics."


 
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