National Edition

Including children with disabilities at school: good for kids, or good for budgets?

Published: Sunday, Feb. 24 2013 3:25 p.m. MST

Clayton remembers a case in point from her own experience as a therapist. She worked with a teen-aged boy with autism who attended regular classes at his high school. The student was extremely bright, but had a hard time containing his volatile emotions and acting appropriately in loud and crowded settings. But Clayton's recommendation that the school not require him to attend large, noisy activities was overridden by well-meaning administrators.

"They worried that singling him out in that way might be harmful to him socially," she said. "Ultimately, the child attended a very chaotic school assembly without additional supports and reacted aggressively, resulting in criminal charges."

Clayton said that for some children, full-time placement in a special education classroom with specifically trained staff, adaptive equipment and specialized learning materials might best meet the needs of the child. For other children, bringing speech or occupational therapy into a general education classroom might be more appropriate.

Policies and costs

There are roughly 7 million special education students in U.S. public schools, and their disabilities range from dyslexia and mild speech disorders to blindness, deafness, profound mental retardation, severe health problems and combinations of all of these. Special education — which requires trained teachers, special equipment, speech pathologists, physical therapists and psychologists — is financed through a bewildering combination of federal, state and local funds that varies widely from state to state and district to district.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average cost of educating a special education student is a little more than double the average cost for other students. A wide spectrum of expenses make up that per-pupil cost for special education, though. The majority of special education students receive minimal services, such as extra therapy for speech problems or accommodations to help with learning disabilities like dyslexia. Fewer than 20 percent of special education students have profound disabilities, but some of those students have an array of expensive needs. Their education costs can skyrocket to many times the cost of educating a typically-developing child.

All told, special education in the United States costs about $30 billion to $35 billion per year. Due to funding inequities in U.S. schools, access to those funds is uneven, and students with disabilities who attend school in low-income districts are unlikely to receive the same level of care as their more privileged peers.

"The challenges are great in serving kids in high-poverty schools, in all areas," said Melody Musgrove, director of special education programs for the U.S. Department of Education. "Special education is no exception. High-poverty schools are certainly a concern."

The federal requirement to educate special education students with their peers to the degree that is appropriate is applied unevenly, too.

"The statute is the same everywhere," said Musgrove. "It requires that children be educated in the least restrictive environment. But different states apply that standard of inclusion very differently."

For instance, a study released last August showed that the New York City Department of Education is making good progress toward reforms that will reverse its longstanding practice of segregating special education students in their own classrooms and schools.

Musgrove said that for most special education students, being educated with friends whose development is more typical is important for reasons that reach beyond social needs. When children who can achieve — like Devon — are segregated in situations where learning happens at a slow pace, their progress is held back. Many states have made it a priority to increase numbers of special education students in regular classrooms, and to improve outcomes on standardized tests, and that's important, Musgrove said.

Including Devon

Devon's family had to push for her chance to be the happy, popular student she is. Sean Adelman, an orthopedic surgeon, was planning to move to Florida for a job when Devon was old enough to attend kindergarten, but he changed his mind about the move because in Florida Devon would be bused to a specialized school where most students had profound disabilities.

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