Commentary

Reforms Crucial to Special Education

By Marie Gryphon
This article appeared in the Seattle Post Intelligencer on June 14, 2002.

The Washington Education Association recently released a survey revealing that two-thirds of the state’s special education teachers plan to quit over the next five years. Teachers of special needs children cited excessive paperwork and too many meetings as leading reasons for their decision to hit the road, exacerbating a serious existing shortage of qualified personnel.

Predictably, the WEA used these results to call for two favorite union remedies, higher pay and smaller class sizes. Union President Charles Hasse said the survey confirms “a compensation and workload crisis among special ed staff.” In fact, Washington’s teachers and students would benefit most from a rarer prescription - fundamental reform. Washington is held hostage to a federal statute that governs nearly every aspect of special education. Passed in 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) mandates a complex series of meetings, paperwork, notice requirements and legalistic due process procedures for developing each disabled child’s educational plan.

While IDEA played a positive role in opening the doors of public schools to disabled children, the statute is a disaster when it comes to the thing parents need most: peaceful, efficient provision of high-quality educational services.

IDEA requires a complex bureaucratic process that drives parents and teachers crazy. Special education teachers bear the brunt of the statute’s requirements. They sometimes attend more than 100 required meetings a year and fill out innumerable forms and records required by IDEA. National surveys show that teachers of special needs kids spend between a quarter and a third of each week on regulatory compliance rather than education.

Parents, overwhelmed by the system’s complexity, often turn to expensive IDEA lawyers for advice. Under IDEA, a parent can secure either a very generous set of benefits or a rather stingy one, depending on how forceful they are during the negotiation process, so legal advice is important. Although educators surely want the best for every child, they are forced by budgetary constraints to provide few benefits to parents who do not make trouble.

Accordingly, IDEA encourages posturing and litigation rather than collaboration between parents and teachers. Education has unavoidably suffered. Teachers are forced to wade through even more paperwork as part of their school district’s defensive legal strategy, and parents come to trust their lawyers more than their kids’ teachers.

Washington should consider abandoning this failed federal law in favor of statewide deregulatory reform. Only states that choose to accept IDEA’s federal funds have to comply with its mandates, and the federal money may not even offset the administrative costs of complying with the statute, leaving nothing or almost nothing for actual education. If Washington opts out of IDEA, it should be able to reduce bureaucracy, empower parents and free teachers with little net effect on the state’s education budget.

Washingtonians should reject IDEA’s misguided approach to special education. As long as state lawmakers ensure that public schools remain receptive to disabled youngsters, they are free to fix this broken system through deregulation and choice.

The state should reform special education by creating a portable benefit system that would allow each parent of a special needs student to control how his or her educational dollars are spent and whether they are spent in a public or private school. The size of the benefit would depend on the nature of each child’s disability. The public schools would still provide a wide variety of special services that parents could choose.

A reformed special education system would eliminate bureaucracy and expand educational options by getting rid of the two main sources of conflict between parents and schools: the amount of money available to each child for special services and the type of services each child needs.

Teachers in a reformed system would spend less time filling out paperwork and attending meetings and more time doing what they do best - teaching special needs children. The WEA survey shows that teachers want more time for teaching. More than 75 percent of respondents said they would stick with special education if class sizes remained the same but the required paperwork was reduced.

Policymakers are justly concerned about the shortage of special education teachers in Washington. Teachers of special needs children have precious talents. Let’s not waste those talents in a system that forces them to spend time with lawyers and bureaucrats rather than children.

Marie Gryphon is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.