Special Education

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(HOST) As the school year winds down, commentator Dick Mallary has been thinking about how we allocate our education dollars – and why.

(MALLARY) Providing special education to children with learning disabilities has become an expensive and contentious issue in Vermont. We all want to provide the best possible education for every child. We want every child to have the courses, the teachers and the facilities that will help that child reach his or her full potential.

About 30 years ago, in response to years of inadequate or unfair attention to disabled and retarded children, the Congress passed the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. It provides a limited amount of Federal dollars to the states in exchange for a mandate that each disabled child receives a “free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.” Thus was born a new era in special education.

Over the years, a system has grown up – highly developed in Vermont – to identify disabled students and to prescribe and provide all sorts of special assistance, courses, personnel and equipment to meet their needs. Their parents, relatives, advocates and the professionals who work with them are vigorously assertive in assuring that they are fully served. When a school questions the necessity of those services, it is likely to find itself in court. And the courts have uniformly ruled that any school that takes the Federal special education money must provide any and all services that are deemed beneficial for a child identified as disabled.

This is a very different standard from the one that applies to all other children. They get whatever services the district can afford. Thus, it appears to me that we spend a disproportionate share of the resources available for educating our youth on the limited group that are deemed disabled. Consequently, we have less of our limited funds to spend on all the other kids.

In Vermont over the last several years, special education costs have risen at a far faster rate than other education costs. And special ed students mainstreamed into regular classrooms, including some highly disruptive students, can degrade the quality of education available to the rest of the students. This situation needs to be faced honestly and addressed so that we use our available resources to do the best possible job for all of our kids.

We should insist that the Federal government fund its special education mandate at the promised 40 percent level. If it does not, Vermonters should decline the limited Federal dollars we receive for this purpose so that we can reconsider what’s both fair and affordable in our educational priorities.

This is Dick Mallary in Brookfield.

Dick Mallary has served extensively in state government and is a former U. S. congressman from Vermont. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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