Sunday, March 10, 2002

RJJ Newsletter - March 2002

I recently visited a small Russian Jewish high school to determine whether it is eligible for certain support. The place was a mess, with the library in total shambles, and the academic program was at a low level. The Talmud teacher could not read the text. At an annual cost of $4,000 per student for a dual curriculum, the school could have done better, but certainly not much better.

Welcome to the underclass of day school education, a world occupied by starved schools, students from poor and immigrant homes, woefully inadequate facilities and severely limited programs. Although not at the school that I visited, there is usually one saving grace, as the terribly underpaid but devoted faculty – especially in Jewish subjects – compensate for some of the shortcomings through their heroic dedication.

When I think of these schools – how little they have and the lack of concern about their situation – it’s hard to sympathize with those who claim that at $20,000 or more per student, special education is short-changed. All children deserve, of course, an education, the opportunity to develop their skills to the greatest potential and to acquire knowledge and competency that will allow them to live more fulfilling lives.

There is therefore something sacred about special education, which doesn’t make it into a sacred cow. Why is there constant agitation – charges and angry demands – about this educational sector when nearly all the rest of education is provided with far less, when as at the school that I visited there are students who will fall far short of their potential because the education they are receiving is primitive and limited, because the schools they attend must get by on a fraction of what is available elsewhere?

If educational resources and funding were free-flowing, so that schools were given all that they need to have to do a credible job, a case could be made for giving lots more to special education, on top of the substantial sums that are already given. Funding, however, is zero sum, so that choices must be made and preferences in one direction inevitably mean that there will be less to go around in other directions. In public school systems everywhere, special education is gobbling up an ever-increasing share of the budget and this has a direct bearing on what is available to support the rest – and lion’s share – of the program.

Two powerful forces contribute enormously to this development. As more students fail in regular classrooms or seem to have special needs, the trend is to shift additional students into special education. This trend is accompanied by ongoing lobbying to provide more services and experts for the children in special education. There are speech experts, hearing experts, counselors and other professional and the bill for all of this adds up to an enormous figure. The extraordinary thing about this is that for the privilege of not entering a regular classroom and having few students to worry about, the experts are invariably paid a good deal more than the teachers who are on the firing line in classrooms with a full complement of students. There is something wrong about this.

It is at times problematic whether special education is beneficial. While there are situations when students require entirely separate classrooms, in others it may be better to integrate the special needs students into regular classrooms. There is, in fact, much talk about mainstreaming, yet the imperialistic nature of special education works against the accomplishment of this goal. Too many students are confined to entirely separate programs for all or nearly all of their education, an experience that cannot imbue them with self-esteem or prepare them adequately for adulthood and fruitful careers. At the least, greater consideration should be given to whether at $20,000 per participant, there might be better ways to deal with special needs within regular classrooms.

This isn’t to advocate the elimination or even sharp curtailment of special education. It is to urge restraint and balance, to consider the claims made for this educational sector in light of the impact of the larger educational enterprise for which we and society have responsibility, as well as in light of the impact on all students, whether in special ed or in regular classrooms.