In his foreword to our book, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work, Robert Crabtree wrote about the problems created for special education by budget conscious school administrators allied with political forces whose ideology includes reducing the tax burden of educating children at any cost. In his words, “seeking to interpret the words of state and federal special education law at the lowest possible level,” these forces are always trying to minimize the cost of special education. Among other techniques, he wrote, they do this by promoting prejudice against persons with disabilities. He concludes that “[t]hese forces tap into and speak, however subtly, for the darker voices of humanity.” Attorney Crabtree is one of the truly seminal figures in special education. He, along with his later law partner Lawrence Kotin, was largely responsible for writing the first comprehensive special education law, the Massachusetts Special Education Reform Act of 1972, known as Chapter 766. This statute was the model for the federal special education law that we now know as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As this September marks the 40th anniversary of the implementation of Chapter 766, it is clear that Attorney Crabtree knows what he is talking about.
A recent example of these darker voices appeared as an opinion piece in the August 5, 2013, edition of The Wall Street Journal. Authored by school attorney Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, and titled “‘Mainstreaming’ Special-Ed Students Needs Debate,” the article describes how the 14% of students in special education (based on national averages) consume a disproportionate amount of educational resources, both in terms of money and teacher services. This she blames, in part, on “an industry of parent attorneys and advocates,” and writes that when it comes to accessing a free appropriate public education, “no other group of students or parents enjoys such rights.”
By framing her argument in this manner, Attorney Freedman apparently wants readers to believe that education is a zero sum game in which IDEA and the other laws providing due process (and civil) rights for students in special education take resources away from students in regular education. She asks parents of the 86% to “understand” that “their kids may be shortchanged,” and wonders why these parents “opt out of any discussion and don’t complain.” In short, Ms. Freedman is not so subtly appealing to the fears of the majority and is essentially asking them to encourage their local school administrators and political representatives to “interpret the words of state and federal special education law at the lowest possible level.” If this seems like an unfair interpretation, at least one of the letter writers responding four days later received this message loud and clear. One Bob Foys of Chicago complained in his letter that anyone who questioned the effect of “this `entrenched and politically correct’ system [of special education]… will be shouted down by the `industry of parent attorneys and advocates’ as an uncaring heartless, bigoted elitist.” For him, and doubtless many more, Ms. Freedman has cleverly turned the real victims of educational discrimination into imaginary victimizers, a feat of true darkness.
Although Attorney Freedman does not say it explicitly, if “mainstreaming” is the problem that “merits discussion,” what is her solution, if not the removal of students with disabilities from the daily public school environment? Is she suggesting a return to the status quo prior to 1974 in which 80% of students with identified disabilities were excluded from education in public schools? In the early 1970s, many state laws still specifically excluded students who were deaf, blind, “mentally retarded,” or “emotionally disturbed” (to use the terms of the day) from getting any public education at all. Is that the standard we should return to? Certainly, educating children with special needs is expensive, however, it’s much cheaper than ignoring these children and allowing them to later become wards of the state.
Attorney Freedman has made other, more explicit, attempts to limit the rights of parents and students in the special education system. In 2011, Ms. Freedman persuaded several school districts in Massachusetts to ask parents to agree to a document called “Procedures Lite,” that she promoted as a way to “simplify” special education. By signing this document, parents waived their right to IEPs, IEP meetings, progress reports, and even worse, the right to a due process hearing, a “simplification” that benefited only the school districts. Happily, when the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found out about Procedures Lite, it “directed districts that have implemented the practice to discontinue it.”*
Special education and the rights of students with disabilities have come a long way in the last four decades, but the “darker voices of humanity” are always lurking in the shadows seeking to undo this progress. The best line of defense is for parents of children with disabilities to educate themselves about their child’s right to an appropriate public education and be prepared to ask questions and seek remedies whenever these rights are abridged.
Carson Graves and Judith Canty Graves
* Marcia Mittnacht, “Memorandum on Procedures Lite” Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, December 16, 2011. http://www.doe.mass.edu/news/news.aspx?id=6585.