“Wave of new disabilities swamps school budgets”

by Walter Olson on September 24, 2011

According to one expert, “special education’s share of school budgets has jumped to an average of 21% in 2005, from just 4% in 1970.” A major contributor: “hidden disabilities” like chronic fatigue syndrome, ADHD, migraines, multiple chemical sensitivity and fibromyalgia that can precipitate demands for expensive accommodations such as home tutoring at school district expense. [Amy Dockser Marcus, WSJ]

{ 16 comments }

1 Ron Miller 09.24.11 at 2:49 pm

But what is the implied message here? Is it that some of these kids are not worthy of the investment because that have illness that we attribute to malingering in adults?

First, what percentage of that 21% actually fall into these categories? My guess is incredibly low. But, if we are going to overinvest, childhood is the time to do it, regardless of the etiology of the problem. I’d rather gamble that we are overpaying for 16 years than pay for them for then next 70 as they fall into the various safety nets and/or prison.

2 Richard Nieporent 09.24.11 at 9:45 pm

But what is the implied message here? Is it that some of these kids are not worthy of the investment because that have illness that we attribute to malingering in adults?

How did you manage to come to that conclusion from reading the article, Ron? What I got out of the article is that if her condition is as bad as it is made out to be, then the real issue is not the school system but her medical problems. Unless her medical condition can be brought under control there is really little that the school can do for her. You cannot learn if you are unable to attend class or even meet with a tutor. What would you propose in this case, Ron?

Mr. Gustavsson said the lawyer asked him what he wanted for Christina.
“I want her to have a normal life,” he told Mr. Pugh.
The lawyer asked the family to consider whether legal action against her school was the best way to achieve that.

It is refreshing to see that some lawyers realize that a lawsuit is not the solution to every problem.

3 Melvin H. 09.25.11 at 12:37 am

A minor correction–the 21% is the average percentage of a school’s budget that goes towards special education, no the actual number of kids in the programs.

4 KB 09.25.11 at 11:38 am

Mr. Gustavsson said the lawyer asked him what he wanted for Christina.
“I want her to have a normal life,” he told Mr. Pugh.

I can’t help but wonder what they expect to happen after school. If she’s unable to function in school, what about the rest of her life and who will they sue then?

5 Smart Dude 09.25.11 at 11:48 am

The problem is that the schools are not only out of money, but facing years of economic decline.

Some of these “disabilitites” are legitimate. Some are utterly bogus. I know of the wealthiest districts on Long Island where many of the students have dubiously diagnosed disabilities to all get extra time on testing.

The bottom line is that “normal” kids will get third rate education in our lawyer infested public schools.

6 Ron Miller 09.25.11 at 2:07 pm

Richard, that is the conclusion I drew from Walter’s post. Not the article.

Here is what I think they should do: anything they possibly can. Have we gone past that point in this case? I can’t tell by reading a short article. If you can, you are smarter than me.

Of course, Smart Dude, some are legitimate and some are bogus. (You are a Smart Dude.) But you can’t always tell which is which and I’d rather err on the side of helping.

I agree kids are claiming disabilities they don’t have to get more time on tests and other accommodations. That is a bad thing. But it put it at #45,206 of problems I think we should spend time worrying about.

More generally, I think everyone worries too much about who is getting over. Let’s try to make the world a better place. If some people get some unjust enrichment along the way, I can live with that if we are pushing the ball forward.

7 John Burgess 09.25.11 at 7:11 pm

@Ron Miller: Philosophically, your argument makes sense. Financially, it does not. Those who are ‘getting over’ are draining resources that could go to others at least as worthy, if not more worthy. Once the money is gone, the only way to replace it is with more tax money. Whether this is a best use of tax monies is very much open to practical, not philosophical discussion.

Were resources unlimited, there would be no need to make choices. Limited resources mean choices, sometimes hard choices. Being generous is a fine thing, but only so long as it can be afforded.

8 a_random_guy 09.26.11 at 6:34 am

Addressing all of the children identified as disabled is impossibly expensive, both in money and – perhaps more importantly – in terms of teacher time and attention. What can we do?

Let’s consider that there are two classes of kids with disabilities:

(1) Those whose disabilities are either minor or just nonsense. For example, most ADHD kids are perfectly normal boys who do not need drugged; they need active recess time, plus parental patience and discipline. However, the current climate makes it acceptable to deal with a difficult child by getting a medical diagnosis. “Mainstreaming” is irrelevant, because these kids are all part of the spectrum of normal kids.

(2) Kids with real and significant disabilities, physical or mental. These are the kids who will never be able perform at a normal level. Re “mainstreaming”: these kids have no place in a normal classroom, because their necessary accommodations severely distract from the education of the rest of the kids; the needs of the majority must take precedence.

We can address all of these problems together, very simply: stop mainstreaming. Place all kids diagnosed with any sort of disability into a slower-paced, special-ed class. The truly disabled kids get the accommodation they need. Normal kids get educated without this distraction. Instead of an incentive to have your kid diagnosed with a disability, suddenly parents have an incentive to have their kid classified as normal.

This not only solves essentially all of the problems discussed; in addition, it would mark a very welcome shift in the general mentality of parents. Each child is a special snowflake to its parents, but en masse they are just a bunch of normal kids.

9 Jim Collins 09.26.11 at 7:33 am

What about the kids that have nothing wrong with them, but, have been diagnosed ADHD by a school doctor so that the school can duck NCLB testing and get Federal funding for the kid’s “disability”?

10 Jack Wilson 09.26.11 at 8:14 am

Privatizing the public schools and replacing them with voucher systems would let those with disabilities attend schools that specialize in accomodating those disabilities.

11 Melvin H. 09.26.11 at 8:36 am

A_random_guy’s idea sounds great……until some lawyer or judge ules otherwise or takes it all the way to a sympathetic Supreme Court, and (I)voila!(/I) The disabled equivalent of (I)Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka(/I).

12 Anonymous Attorney 09.26.11 at 11:00 am

All the incentives line up on the side of declaring a child “disabled”:

* It feeds the “disability” industry, which is becoming vast and sprawling and includes doctors, counselors, treaters of one kind or another, “special” educators, pill makers, the list goes on.

* The parents and kids are happy to have a fancy-sounding explanation for problems.

* Administrators and teachers are relieved of having to actually get results out of the kid.

* There’s never any questioning whether someone actually HAS these disabilities, or whether they count as legitimate TO BEGIN WITH. The dubious ones include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, “bipolar”, depression and anxiety, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, etc. Anyone can be diagnosed with any of these as easily as getting a credit card.

It’s a big lot of nonsense, but I don’t see it going anywhere but up.

13 kimsch 09.26.11 at 11:38 am

My son has ADHD. We had him diagnosed before kindergarten. He is not classified by the school system as anything other than a normal kid. He has no IEP (in Illinois an Individualized Education Plan – for all “special needs” kids). In fact, this kid is elevating the NCLB scores for his grade level (5th) and school. He scores higher than grade level, higher than most in the school, the district, and the state…

We have never allowed him to use his diagnosis as an excuse or a crutch. We’ve never talked down to him. He had to go in on Saturday for 3 stitches in his upper lip because he stepped on a friend’s old dog and she was hurt and reacted by nipping (he was bent over at the time he stepped on her). I told him what was happening using all the “adult” words. That his lip stopped bleeding because the blood coagulated, or clotted, that the intern was in to debride the wound with sterile water. That the water wouldn’t hurt because it was just water. That his lip was bleeding again because the debriding washed away the clot. The kid’s nearly eleven, but has the vocabulary of a kid in high school (the vocabulary a kid in high school is supposed to have).

I also have a daughter with special needs. She has a developmental delay, moderate hearing impairment, epilepsy, and a few years ago she was also diagnosed with lupus. She doesn’t speak well. She loves to color and watch Barney and the Transformers movies (she loves Sam and Bumblebee). She can’t be mainstreamed and I’ve never thought she should be. I did take advantage of the small amount of Speech, Occupational, and Physical therapy the school district provided because the insurance wouldn’t cover her because she wouldn’t “improve” because of the therapies. Not like a person with a sprained ankle could “improve” after therapy. They didn’t want an open-end on her therapies.

I do believe that there are many who use their diagnoses as a crutch. As a way to not do too much to help their child at home. That’s sad.

14 shg 09.26.11 at 12:57 pm

Just to throw another wrench into the works, one of the factors that complicates the situation is that children with disabilities are required to be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE) under the theory that inclusion with “normal” children benefits the disabled and makes non-disabled students more accepting of those with disabilities.

But this precludes grouping children by disability or teaching needs, which would likely be far more effective and inexpensive, though it would stigmatize disabled students by separating them from their peers.

15 doug 09.26.11 at 1:14 pm

I too have two children with special needs. The oldest has difficulties understanding what you tell her. We have self paid for therapy for her which has greatly helped her. She is in a normal classroom and doing well. Her twin sister cannot talk well, has gross and fine motor skill problems (can’t cut with scissors), and is diagnosed with autism spectum disorder. She has received some PT and SP through the local school district, but she is receiving most of her therapy through an in home program provided by the state. We think in time she will be able to read and speak better, but it will take years of work.

16 MF 09.27.11 at 8:04 pm

But it’s for the kids (TM)!

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