The nation’s special ed population increased by 63 percent between 1976 and 2006; it now accounts for 13 percent of the nation’s public school students. Although better diagnosis of cognitive disorders such as autism can account for some of that growth, it doesn’t explain all of it. Mentally retarded students account for just eight percent of the nation’s special education population, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The argument made by some advocates for the disabled that many mentally retarded children are mislabeled in order to protect them from scrutiny is countered by evidence that such retardation naturally occurs in just one percent of the population.
Half of special ed students are labeled as either suffering from a “specific learning disability” (a vague catch-all that can include students suffering anything from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to severe autism), hindered by an “emotional disturbance” (another toss-in category that can include poorly behaved kids and those suffering from clinical depression) or are “developmentally delayed” (which can mean that the child is either cognitively damaged, dyslexic or wasn’t taught to read by his parents). With moderate accommodations (and in many cases, none at all), the students can actually learn. In Indiana, for example, 69-percent of third-grade Special Ed students who didn’t need accommodations passed the math portion of that state’s standardized test in 2006, barely trailing their regular class peers.
Young boys — especially minorities — are twice as likely as girls to be placed on short buses. One in every five black and white boys attending Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, was labeled learning disabled; just one in ten of their female schoolmates were similarly categorized. This isn’t just an urban problem. In the ritzy Lower Merion Township, Pa. — once the stomping ground of Obama adviser Lawrence Summers and NBA star Kobe Bryant — 32 percent of the school district’s black males and 13 percent of white males were labeled learning disabled, twice the rate for their female classmates. Such over-diagnosis is one reason why fewer men than women are graduating from high school and college — even though males make up a larger proportion of public school enrollment.
Given the low rigor of curricula and the accompanying stigma of their status, special ed students are even more exposed to the inadequate instruction in traditional public schools. They are also more likely to drop out: Just 33 percent of special ed students leaving school in 2005-2006 earned a diploma.
THE NATURE OF LEARNING disabilities, which are often difficult to diagnose, is one particular culprit. Difficulties that come from a lack of proper childrearing at home can easily be mistaken for cognitive disorders. The fact that the most classroom teachers — who are the ones who mainly refer children to be examined for disabilities — also factors into special ed placement. Boys are particularly vulnerable because their natural rambunctiousness is of great contrast to the more-docile behavior of their female classmates. Also exacerbating matters: The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed 34 years ago to improve the quality of education for special ed students. The law’s vague definitions of learning disabilities — and inadequate enforcement by the U.S. Department of Education — have given districts too much leeway in treating students. As Holzman notes, black students are still twice as likely as whites to end up in special ed, despite federal oversight.
Then there is the money. Although special ed programs can be costly, they are also highly compensated through weighted funding formulas. In 2005-2006, for example, Atlanta Public Schools generated $7,550 in funds from Georgia’s state government for every special ed child enrolled; that’s three times more than the district receives from the state for every child in a regular classroom or in gifted-and-talented classes.
Medicaid, which compensates school districts for every cost related to providing special ed medical services, is also a prime funding source as states use the program to help shift administrative costs from their books. Last year, school districts in New York State agreed to repay $540 million in Medicaid funds for special Ed costs they improperly billed. Declared Greene and his colleague, Marcus Winters, this past August in Forbes: “Schools see a financial incentive to designate low-achieving students as disabled, while they may not actually be disabled at all.”