NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Special Education Program Is A Disaster

June 29, 2001

Special education is poorly defined, poorly run and ill-serves the students it is intended to help, says Michelle Cottle in the New Republic. If the federally mandated and partially funded program is deemed worth saving, it must be overhauled.

  • Special education suffers from an expanding definition of "disabled," perverse incentives for schools and parents to categorize students as disabled, and a focus on process rather than progress, critics charge.
  • Spending on special education has escalated from $1 billion in 1980 to anywhere from $35 billion to $60 billion today -- no one really knows for sure -- and soaks up more and more of state education budgets.
  • One of the program's fastest growing segments is "Specific Learning Disorders" -- which is so ill-defined and elastic that the number of children involved has grown from 796,000 in 1977 to today's 2.7 million.

Schools have an incentive to shunt low-achievers into the SLD category, because by doing so they qualify for more money. Parents sometimes press to have their children placed in SLD programs because they offer one-on-one tutoring and additional time to complete exams.

However, once in the special education system, a student has only a 5 percent chance of escaping that categorization.

Most disturbing to critics, special education is rife with racial bias. According to a March 2001 report from the Harvard Civil Rights Project, black children are three times as likely as white children to be labeled mentally retarded.

And the greater the proportion of whites in a school district and among teachers, the higher the percentage of black students (and to a lesser extent Hispanics) who are put in special education, according to a joint study by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Progressive Policy Institute.

Source: Michelle Cottle, "Reform School," New Republic, June 16, 2001.


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