An Inclusive Litany

12/15/02

Writing in Reason magazine, Lisa Snell examines the dramatic increase in learning disability diagnoses, concluding that the trend is largely driven by perverse economic incentives.

Nearly 12 percent of K-12 students in American public schools are assigned to the special education system, only about 10 percent of whom suffer from severe disabilities such as mental retardation, autism, blindness, or deafness. The rest have received a variety of less substantial diagnoses such as speech and language delays, emotional disorders, mild mental retardation, and specific learning disability (SLD). SLD diagnoses are the most common, rising 34 percent since 1991 and accounting for over half the students covered under the federal Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), which dispenses $60 billion annually to schools districts with disabled students. Indeed, SLD diagnoses have increased as other special education categories have declined.

A learning disability is defined at the federal level simply as a "severe discrepancy" between student's achievement level (as typically measured on standardized reading tests) and intelligence (as measured on IQ tests), leading to the possibility that instructional failures become defined as disabilities. States also have their own widely divergent definitions, under which researchers have found 80 percent of all American schoolchildren could qualify. A 2001 report by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development concluded that it was impossible to clearly distinguish between a learning disorder in reading and low achievement. Another report in 2002 from the President's Commission on Special Education concluded that 80 percent of students diagnosed with SLD are assigned to special education "simply because they haven't learned how to read." And a 2001 joint report by the Fordham Foundation and the Progressive Policy Institute concludes that nearly 2 million students would not be classified as disabled had their schools provided rigorous, early reading instruction, which the authors say "begs the question of what constitutes a disability." Worse still, the longer students stay in special education, the less likely they are to learn to read.

Yet as Wade Horn and Douglas Tynan observe in The Public Interest, parents have a short-term incentive to get their poor-performing children classified as disabled. Special education students often get personal tutors and note-takers, extra or unlimited time on tests, and freedom from many disciplinary rules. It thus comes as no surprise that 27 percent of students who received special help on their SATs came from families with incomes over $100,000, even though they only comprise 13 of those taking the SAT.

The incentive to identify students as disabled is also strong in schools with large numbers of low-income students, but for a different reason. The Title I program already funds remedial reading and math instruction for children from poor families, presumably at an educational disadvantage because of their economic background. But when school administrators consider Title I along with the IDEA program, Horn and Tynan write, "low-income, low-achieving students can be twofers when it comes to maximizing procurement of federal and state funds." The money tends to be spent on the same set of remedial programs, regardless of whether the students using them are considered poor or disabled.

Special education students cost an average of $13,000 each year compared with the national per-pupil average of $6,200, but the designation also brings in more outside funding. Still, the federal IDEA program only covers about 12 percent of the $41.3 billion states and localities spend on special education, which Horn and Tynan say is "perhaps the largest unfunded federal mandate for education ever placed on state and local government." House and Senate reauthorization plans both call for full funding of the IDEA program, covering 40 percent of state and local costs. The House Republican plan would increase funding by $1 billion a year over 10 years, while the Senate plan calls for a $2.5 billion annual increase over six years.

[Ed.: I recently took my daughter to the local children's library and was struck by the contrast: a bunch of seemingly normal kids playing games, drawing, running, talking, and reading, while the parents' primary topic of conversation was their kid's various learning disabilities.]

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