Palin, Disabled Kids, and Federal Policy

Last Friday, Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin offered a federal policy prescription for disabled students: more choice for parents, tens of billions of new spending on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and some unspecified “reforming and refocusing.”

The Constitution affords the federal government no authority to determine how children are educated, apart from ensuring equal protection of the laws.  A political party that accepted the limited, enumerated powers accorded to the federal government by the Constitution would not have a legislative agenda on this subject, other than rolling back unconstitutional laws already on the books. But, given that no such party exists at present, let’s consider this proposal.

McCain/Palin want to tie existing federal IDEA funding to individual students rather than to the districts that currently serve them, so that parents could take the money to a private school of their choice. Ideally, according to Palin, they’d want the state funding to follow the children, too (as in Florida’s McKay voucher program for disabled students), but it seems they would leave that decision up to the states. This is a better idea than any alternative IDEA reform offered in the past few decades.

The idea of “fully funding” IDEA is, however, one of the worst ideas of the past few decades. There are two problems with IDEA. First, it is not clear how much it helps disabled children. Studies of student performance before and after they enter IDEA programs show little if any benefit. Second, the law has led to a wholesale labeling of perfectly healthy children as “disabled” simply because the public school system has failed to teach them how to read.

Today, just under 3 million American kids are classified as suffering from “Specific Learning Disabilities,” a condition defined in law as reading performance below the level expected for a child of the given age and intelligence.  An obvious deficiency in this definition is that it encompasses children who have not been properly taught to read, and have not managed to pick up the skill on their own. Many public school systems, thanks to their infatuation with ”whole language” instruction and their resistance to structured synthetic phonics, have difficulty teaching many non-disabled children to read. These 3 million “SLD” children represent more than 40 percent of the entire population of students classified as disabled under the IDEA.

Fully funding IDEA without first addressing its recipe for rampant overdiagnosis will likely make this problem much, much worse.

A real solution would be the spread of large-scale school choice programs at the state level, which would allow all families to easily choose a public or private school for their children. As more families migrated to the private sector, and all schools were forced to compete, ineffective reading instruction methods would be discarded as competitive liabilities, saving millions of children from being exposed to them.