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Congressman Danny Davis and special education

By Bernard Chapin
web posted January 5, 2004

Unlike many of my red state conservative counterparts, in Illinois, the public servants who represent me seldom share any of my views or beliefs, and this will be even truer when Peter Fitzgerald retires from the Senate next year. That is why, upon receiving a mailing from my congressman, Danny Davis, I instinctively headed for the kitchen trashcan. However, on the way, I saw the headline, "Education is Still the Key", so I decided to take a look in case he had something worthwhile to say.

Predictably, he did not. On the page was a familiar, but always bizarre, argument that is often directed against people like me:

"The Improving Education Results for Children With Disabilities Act of 2003 (HR 1350) is designed to guarantee an appropriate and publicly financed education for students with special needs. During debate and markup (the process of amending a bill) my amendment to positively impact the disproportionately high number of African American boys being placed in special education was included. The amendment requires any school district with a disproportionately high number of individuals from any population group to report to the Secretary of Education what actions are being taken to better understand and rectify the situation."

As Woody Allen might say, "the key word here is disproportionately." In this country there is a disproportionate attempt on the part of the media, politicians, and academics to attribute any group differences to the diabolical, yet unwitting, machinations of our entire political system. This system supposedly contaminates institutions and results in workers within those institutions (like me) plotting against "the other" -- be they black, Hispanic or females of all varieties.

The plot of this plot has been provided by the conspiratorial black helicopter school of sociological understanding, which is formally known by the scientific name of "gobbledygook." This school of thought has yet to explain why cogs in the system like me do not extend our prejudice to Asian-Americans as they clearly outperform all other groups. Perhaps our benevolent disposition results from a love for Thai food or maybe it's just that we haven't gotten around to "keeping them down" yet.

The reason that I am so cavalier about this issue is that my congressman's assertion belies all the experiences I've had over the last decade as a public school educrat. There is no cause for affirmative action regarding his comments, as his words merely showcase that he has no idea what he is talking about.

Now this may come as a surprise to some of our readers, but school districts do not attempt to intentionally increase the number of special education students on their rolls. First, money is not an incentive. It's a disincentive. Eligible students cost far more to educate than regular education students do and districts are refunded only partially for the extravagant sums of money they spend on each special needs child. As any taxpayer knows, getting a refund is not the same as never having to pay in the first place.

The mythic strategy of placing a high number of students in special education to manufacture funds is the same as Joe Citizen intentionally making a losing investment just so he can write it off on his taxes. Such an investment strategy amounts to spending five bucks to get two in return. This strategy could never be confused with "profit." It is synonymous with "federal shell game."

In one case last year, we were actually asked by an outside agency to foot the $150,000 bill that it cost to educate a child (that they placed) at a residential facility. To put this in perspective, 150 grand is 15 times the rate of expenditure for the average student in the sieve-like Washington, D.C. schools. Expenditures like that one do not enrich a district; they bankrupt it.

The only exception to our budgetary bleeding concerns those children covered by the Orphanage Act. With them we get 100 per cent reimbursement but the checks come long after the outlays are made. However, the great majority of pupils are not wards of the state, which means that what we pay is gone forever. So, please believe me when I state that it is not financially advantageous for a district to inflate its number of special education students.

A second justification for why the congressman's statement is misguided lies in the amount of obsessive and compulsive rules and regulations we must follow for every non-general education student. The old German saying, "Governments come and go but bureaucracy is forever" is quite apt when discussing the legal morass that is disability management.

After we meet as a team, declare a child eligible for special services, and write his or her Individual Education Program (IEP), we vicariously invite the trial lawyers guild into our establishment. From that point on, the child's "bureaucratic needs" are never far from our minds and "not getting sued" outweighs many practical considerations.

Hours and riches are spent making sure that paperwork exists and is regularly updated. At the school in which I work, I already have had over three formal meetings on a few of our children with five full months remaining in the school year. One commentator estimated that it costs Baltimore $28 million annually just to achieve compliance with the complexities of special education law [Wolf, "Sisyphean Tasks," Education Next, Winter 2003, p.24] and this will not surprise anyone who works in the field.

So far, the district mindset I describe has been that of an educrat, but every employee is in some way affected by the vagaries of special education law. For deans and principals, a student's eligibility has everything to do with the way in which he or she is handled. In general, exceptional pupils are never suspended for more than ten days a year. I recall one dean calling me on the intercom to ask about a child he just put out of the building. He asked, "Hey, it's his twelfth day out this year. I was wondering, he's not special ed is he?"

"Yes he is." I said. "You should have called me beforehand."

He answered, "Oh God no" as if his head was in the trajectory of a catapult.

A third explanation for Danny Davis's implication that there may be discrimination involved in the number of African-American children in special education can be found in the demographics of those who solicit referrals for the program. When I assess a regular education student for special education eligibility it is usually the result of a parent or case worker making a request. Many of these parents and caseworkers are African-American (as are 90 per cent of our students) and I do not believe that they are in any way trying to disproportionately segregate their offspring or wards based on race.

Parents, case workers, therapists, and educational liaison officials often feel that initiating a referral is in the best interests of the child. Their motivation for initiating a case study is not a result of racial self-hatred. Sometimes it is due to failing grades or a desire for therapeutic services. They also cannot help but be aware of the dazzling list of protections and exemptions that await individuals who are certified as having an educational disability. Even in the case of expulsion for drugs or a firearm, our district still goes to great pains to ensure that the student receives some form of instruction during their period of banishment.

The full extent of the bureaucratic protections for children of special needs would shock most outsiders. I even know of one student whose personal government-funded lawyer attends all of his staffings. She notified us that she does not represent his foster parents or anybody else present other than the student. Think about her the next time you hear that social services are under-funded. Once she told me when I called to schedule a meeting that "anytime was good for her." I answered, "I bet." She's got all day.

The irony of know nothing politicians confusing speculation with reality is that they usually consider themselves "progressive," yet the same progressives who promote the lie of institutional racism are the same ones whose intellectual neglect ends up cheating children out of the opportunity to learn anything meaningful in school. I am chiefly referring here to the bogus argument that minority children somehow learn differently from Caucasian children. This misconstruction always seems to be advanced by "liberal" progressives. I hold that there is nothing liberal at all about such a belief. Indeed, it is the epitome of racism and no more forward looking than phrenology or palm reading.

What the progressive denigration of facts, figures, dates, phonics, homework, individual responsibility, and hard work has accomplished is to make the public schools a profoundly unserious place in which to spend 13 years. If not formal knowledge, then what do we wish to impart to those we've been given a fortune to educate?

An abhorrence of direct instruction has produced 16 year-olds with second grade equivalents in reading and mathematics, and graduates who can't balance their own check books. They don't understand interest rates, read restaurant menus or comprehend the terms of the lease they just signed. But why should the Danny Davis's of government care about these children? Their continued ignorance is the best guarantor of their vote.

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at bchapafl@hotmail.com.

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