#23: Cut Special Education

"Is the purpose of public education to nurse students or to teach them?" asks Brian Crosby, a twenty-year veteran high school English teacher and the founder of the American Education Association, in his book Smart Kids, Bad Schools.

Crosby tells Big Think we need to decrease funding for special education and inform the public that these programs waste an inordinate amount of money. He thinks it's not only bad policy that's responsible for this overgenerous allocation of resources, but also certain parents who selfishly exploit their children's disabilities in order to get them ahead. 

According to the research of Dr. Jay P. Greene, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, almost one in seven students in the U.S. is classified as having a disability. This marks a 63% increase in the number of "disabled" children in US public schools since 1976, the year President Ford's Education for All Handicapped Children Act—now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—granted over one million children previously kept at home or in institutions access to public schools from birth until twenty-two years of age.

"Originally, the federal government was to provide 40 percent of the extra costs associated with educating the disabled children," Crosby says, "However, as recently as 2002, that participation amounted to only 18%, leaving local and state governments to make up the difference." In 2004, for instance, Crosby says the government sources provided over $4 billion for California's 700,000 special ed students, but another $1.6 billion had to be siphoned off the general education budget to make the up difference.

What's especially odd about this disproportionate allocation of the education budget, according to Greene, is that students today are no more disabled than they were in 1976. Essentially, he believes, there has just been an increase in the number of students who are categorized as disabled. "Almost all the growth in special education over the last three decades has occurred in just two of the thirteen federal categories for disabilities: specific learning disability (SLD, which includes dyslexia), and 'other health,' (which includes attention-deficit disorders). The size of the remaining eleven federal categories combined has remained relatively flat, while SLD has tripled and 'other health' has quadrupled. Those two categories account for 86 percent of the increase in special-education enrollments," wrote Dr. Greene in a 2009 National Review Article.

Greene also points out that reported disability rates lack credibility because they vary dramatically from state to state: "In New Jersey, for example, 18 percent of all students are classified as disabled, but in California the rate is only 10.5 percent. There is no medical reason why students in New Jersey should be 71 percent more likely to be placed in special education than students in California."

Crosby admits that part of this increase is due to schools formally classifying remedial learners—kids who are simply struggling academically—as "disabled" just to receive more funding. But mom and dad have caught on too: "Parents want to get their kids labeled special ed so they can get additional treatment, additional help, and additional time to take their exams," says Crosby, "I see it with my own eyes; students who are fully capable of taking standardized tests are allotted extra time for their exams even though I know there's nothing wrong with them. I guess that's the nature of the beast."


12% of U.S. public school students are categorized as needing special education services, while 22% of all education funding goes to special education programs. Special education students don't need twice as much funding as non-special-education students, says Crosby. The needs of a few have far outweighed the needs of the many.

Currently, about 25% of an individual public school's budget is left to the discretion of its principal. Crosby says if local and state governments gave each public school a higher percentage of their budget to manage as they saw fit, special education students would receive a more equitable allocation of resources. For students who are truly disabled, Crosby says health insurance companies should share the burden of their care.

Why We Should Reject This

"In the 35 years since IDEA was enacted, significant progress has been made toward meeting major national goals for developing and implementing effective programs and services for early intervention, special education and related services," says Alexa Posny, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. If special education were cut, it would not only jeopardize the needs of the over 6.6 million children and youth who receive special education and related services to meet their individual needs, but also almost 350,000 infants, toddlers, and their families, who are eligible for early intervention programs and services.

"Ultimately, any funding system should ensure and promote a unified system of education that does whatever it takes for every student to succeed," says Posny. "I truly believe that access to education is the civil rights issue of our time and so it is appropriate that we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act this year. The passage of this landmark law ushered in a new spirit of inclusion and hope to our public school classrooms and achieved a founding truth of our nation—that all of our citizens are entitled to the same privileges, pursuits and civil rights." 

More Resources

"End the Special-Ed Racket," an article Marcus A. Winters and Jay P. Greene.

— A federal site for information about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.