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Mitt Romney's plan for fixing special education

Published: Wednesday, June 13 2012 9:19 a.m. MDT

Last week, Mitt Romney released a white paper outlining his vision for education in America. One feature is a proposal to make federal funds allocated for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) portable so that special-needs students can choose which school to attend and bring the federal funding along with them.

Romney's plan, according to a guest blogger for the Atlantic who calls himself Dr. Manhattan, would significantly improve access to services for poor families with special-needs children. "If a version of Romney's proposal was enacted, it would be almost certain to decrease this inequality substantially and increase opportunities for poorer children to receive better special education services. For that alone, liberals should take it seriously," he wrote.

The current system favors the rich, argues Manhattan. Each year, he said, he must sue New York City to cover the costs of school and services necessary for his autistic son. "We have never lost one of our 'suits' yet against NYC, but in the meantime we are required to front the cost of our son's school and services every year and seek eventual reimbursement from NYC. Very, very few families have the financial resources to do so," he writes. The cost of his son's school and additional services can exceed $170,000 per year.

Miriam Freedman, a lawyer specializing in special education cases, argues that the real problem is that IDEA has outlived its usefulness:

"As effectively as we accomplished the law’s mission over the last thirty-five years, we need to acknowledge that today’s needs are different. Issues of access — long solved — no longer require the huge bureaucracy IDEA spawned. Instead, we now need to focus on improved teaching and learning for all students. It is time to end special education as we know it. We should consider ending the entitlement status of IDEA and the dysfunctional, adversarial, compliance-driven system that it engenders," she wrote in her article for the University of Chicago Law Review.

"We can't treat special education as sacrosanct and off-limits in our national school reform conversation," she wrote. "Let us preserve the spirit of the law — educating all students with disabilities — as we retool it for the 21st century."

Her plan for accomplishing this includes limiting litigation in instances of services for special-needs students and focusing on good teaching instead of training teachers how to be compliant with school policy and IDEA.

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