Increase Federal Special Education Funding along with Parental Choice
By Barry Stern, Ph.D.
Education and Career Development Consultant
Several in Congress from both parties and chambers have asked newly confirmed secretary of education Betsy Devos to advocate full federal funding of the IDEA special education legislation at 40 percent. The federal share is currently at 16 percent; its high point was in fiscal years 2004 and 2005 at almost 19 percent.
As parent of a special needs child and former federal and state education official, I’ve seen close up the failure of IDEA especially for kids with neurological disabilities like autism. Federal funding up to the authorized amount would not make much difference without major changes in the design of this 42-years old law. The problem is that there is no financial incentive for schools to perform with these kids. Teachers and administrators get paid regardless of what they produce, and for kids with autism they produce little other than abuse, neglect or a really bad education.
Children with autism and other neurological disabilities would be well served by a system that separates diagnosis and prescription from filling the prescription. Schools do all three and thus have a clear conflict of interest. Oftentimes they misdiagnose and under treat in order to save money, especially in hard times.
States should contract out the diagnosis and prescription functions to specialized non-profits — universities, hospitals, etc. These contractors staffed with experts in the covered disabilities would base their diagnoses and prescriptions (IEPs) on the best research available. Each prescription would come with a price tag, and a formula that combines defined amounts of state, local and federal funding for each disability class would ensure that schools obtain and spend sufficient funds for the recommended treatment of each child (similar to the “weighted student average” that the late superintendent John Stanford introduced to the Seattle schools in the late 1990s).The customized stipend for each child would be sufficiently generous to encourage schools to compete to enroll these kids and their parents rather than marginalize them as they do now. Parents dissatisfied with the quality of school interventions for their special needs child could opt for a voucher with the designated amount that they could spend with any qualified provider, public or private.
Currently, most schools baby sit rather than educate most children on the autism spectrum. School staff gets paid to go to meetings to argue with parents about what is best for the child. So instead of the child’s teacher instructing the child, the teacher is in IEP or other kinds of meetings (e.g. mediation) much of the time, leaving the child with a paraprofessional or aide without a college degree. Moreover, schools mostly do not hire qualified people to teach children with autism, and they cover up their mediocre instruction with “cooked” data to “prove” the child is making sufficient progress. Thus, parents and taxpayers need independent evaluations of student progress, since school staff routinely documents whatever will help them keep their jobs, the truth be damned.
In sum, let’s end now the public school monopoly on special education. Instead, provide a federal design with enough money to encourage schools to fill an independently prepared prescription on what is required for a child’s progress, and let outside agencies compete for the privilege of performing the diagnostic, prescription, and evaluation functions.