Why do Politicians Feel Free to Hack Away at Special Education?

The rights of children who need special education services are not an “unnecessary regulatory burden,” as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stated when explaining why 72 guidance documents for special education programs were being dropped. Nor are they a way for Chicago Public Schools to save money as social impact bonds and a secret special education manual have attempted to do. Whenever budgets need to be trimmed, the civil rights of children with special needs are on the chopping block.

Twenty-five years ago, I founded and directed Warren W. Cherry Preschool, a place where children come together in an environment that teaches acceptance, respect, and the appreciation of individual differences. From the start, the founding board and staff of Cherry Preschool believed that Including children with special needs in our classes was an important step toward teaching young children to get along in an increasingly diverse world. We believed that all children deserve a quality early childhood education.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children agrees, stating that,

“All disadvantaged and disabled children will have access to high quality and developmentally appropriate preschool programs that help prepare children for school.”

I have always passionately believed in this principle, even before I had two grandchildren with special needs. Thus, it was particularly painful to learn that among the 72 policy documents relating to special education rescinded under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (with Donald Trump’s blessing) was one from 2012 that stated that “least restrictive environment” (LRE) requirements applied to preschool students. So now it’s okay to place preschoolers with special needs in restricted environments?

DeVos and Trump are taking an approach to special education school services for kids with disabilities and special needs similar to Trump’s management of the insurance exchanges of the Affordable Care Act. The rights are technically still there but they are limiting people’s ability to access the information they need. Make the enrollment period for insurance exchanges shorter and don’t advertise. For special education, keep the laws in place but rescind policy documents that outline and clarify the rights of students with disabilities. Even though some of these documents were outdated, there is little trust of DeVos by families of children with disabilities. After all, during her confirmation hearing, she believed that states should decide how the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is enforced.

What the Trumps administration thinks is “superfluous” documentation often gives folks without money or means access to the information they need to understand their rights. By making it harder to obtain information, they are starving programs that they think cost our country too much money – healthcare and special education services – limiting access for those who desperately need these things.

In the case of special education, by removing guidance documents that flesh out students' rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act, as well as guidance documents outlining how schools can access federal special education money, Trump believes he is alleviating “unnecessary regulatory burdens." In actuality, he is making it extremely challenging for folks without access to lawyers to ensure their children’s right to a “free and appropriate public education” is not being trampled.

This assault on the civil rights of children with disabilities is not limited to Trump and DeVos. Two years ago, Chicago, supposedly a left-leaning sanctuary city, bought into the concept of social impact bonds. The way this worked, the city borrowed money from investors under a pay for success program to place children in city-run preschools. The cost-saving payout was that many of these children would not end up in costly special education programs. In October of 2015, I wrote about this plan:

“Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) think this approach (social impact bonds) is a great idea. They partnered with Goldman Sachs, Northern Trust, and the Pritzker Family Foundation to lend CPS money with the promise of huge payouts down the road. According to the Chicago Tribune, starting in the 2015-16 school year and for three more years, borrowing money from the investors named above will finance 2,618 children’s education in half-day Child-Parent Center preschools. The City will save $300 million over the duration of all of these children’s educations if none of them end up in special education classes. CPS risks nothing by selling these social impact bonds, but pays the lenders substantial dividends for success (avoidance of costly special education services).”

At the time, I questioned whether avoiding placement in special education is a valid measure of success and the way to make a profit for the investors. Because paying for “success” meant avoiding costly special education services and the investors expected to earn money, would that impact how CPS labeled children as successful? There was a huge incentive to claim success and deny special education services.

More recently, Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool has been under fire for a secret special education manual that ended up denying services for kids needing special education in an effort to balance the CPS budget. Claypool paid consultants who were not educators 14 million dollars to devise the plan. Matt Cohen, a lawyer who specializes in special education and has worked in the field for more than 30 years, explained Claypool’s approach this way:

“The overall effect is really to wear parents down in every way that they can, and wear the staff down in every way that they can, so that the ultimate outcome is giving less. It is equivalent to the old fable about a death by 1,000 lashes. This is a death by 1,000 slow cuts.”

Among those cuts:

  • At the start of last school year, CPS budgeted about $29 million less than the year before for special education.
  • Cutbacks meant there were 350 fewer special education teachers and 76 fewer aides in the spring of 2017 compared to the year before.
  • Children got 12 percent less time with specialists, such as occupational therapists and psychologists. The number of clinicians also dropped.
  • The number of special-needs children who got an extended school year (critical summer school programs that provide continuity and prevent loss of educational gains) dropped by 56 percent last year.
  • Many parents of young children with disabilities who were placed in special preschools far from their homes no longer had bus service and had no way to get their children to school.

The secret manual placed a tremendous burden on teachers and parents to complete huge amounts of paperwork, documenting the need for every service provided.

What do all of these efforts by politicians to save money by limiting special education services have in common? They are based on putting up as many obstacles as possible to families and educators of children requiring special education services to save money. They make the false assumption that kids will outgrow their special needs and learning disabilities. And they show a lack of compassion for the struggles of children with disabilities and their families.

As Marion Wright Edelman so wisely said,

“The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children.”

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