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Special Education Services: Neediest Get The Least

June 26, 2015

The title of Wednesday’s NYTimes op-ed article by Paul Morgan and George Farkas posed this question: “Is Special Ed Racist?” The short answer is “No”. The reason?

Black children face double jeopardy when it comes to succeeding in school. They are far more likely to be exposed to the gestational, environmental and economic risk factors that often result in disabilities. Yet black children are less likely to be told they have disabilities, and to be treated for them, than otherwise similar white children.

Based on my experience, poor children of any race face the same double jeopardy because in the final analysis the root of special education’s problem is funding. Everyone agrees we need to meet the unique individual needs of children and everyone agrees that the warehousing of severely needy children is abominable… but no one wants to pay the costs needed to provide these services. When the federal government passed 94-142 it promised to provide 40% of the costs. That has never happened. Worse, the mandated services effectively require districts to hire case managers who serve as quasi-administrators, instructional assistants who often shadow students all day long, and central administrative staff to oversee this personnel and make sure that the program is in compliance. This all costs money… and since the federal mandate is not matched with federal money there is no incentive for schools to aggressively identify children with special needs, especially in districts that are financially strapped to begin with.

But in affluent districts, engaged and informed parents seek the services of attorneys who serve as advocates for their children. Sadly, the parents of the poorest children in the most impoverished schools are often uninformed with it comes to special education services and, as a consequence, their children are underserved. While it is unimaginable that any level of government would fund advocates and perhaps equally unimaginable that some attorneys would take on this work pro bono, absent such a movement children raised in poverty will miss out on the services they are entitled to and schools will be incapable of providing children with the services they need to afford an equal opportunity to all children.

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