#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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  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
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The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

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An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

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An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

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A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

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How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe


Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.