The best lies are always ones based in some truth.
The newest austerity project for districts across the nation, including the Chicago Public Schools, is to claim that special education budgets must be decimated: in the name of racial equality. Now, the refrain to destroy public services in the name of equality should sound familiar if you've been paying attention. Remember how corporate ed reformers claim that we must dismantle and privatize public education because of inequality, because of Civil Rights, because of racism? In fact, this is a favorite tactic of neoliberalism more broadly.
And now it's coming for special education.
Special ed has flown somewhat under the radar of the neoliberal education reform debate. Usually, it's brought up in the context of pushing out kids with special needs from "schools of choice" especially the charters where a significant disability is simply a liability on the books for free market privateers. These kids find themselves bounced around schools until they land back in the neighborhood school which must provide services, only now that school has been so striped resources as public money flows towards privatizers, the child languishes through schooling more unsupported than ever.
So now, districts that have had funding sources dry up-are looking to save money on the backs of their most fragile-but also most expensive-students: students with special needs.
Now, the one thing that stood in the way of this desire to slash costs, was that darned federally-protected document called an Individual Education Plan. There was legal recourse if this plan was not implemented. Charter or neighborhood, parents and kids had some rights. So the privatizers decided to use their favorite tool: a plea of racism and inequality as a reason to DENY services to needy kids.
Now, back to the beginning of this post, the best lies do have some truth in them. We do often see racial disparities in how special education services are doled out.
Yet all the studies I've seen focus solely on the individual. The problem has been completely framed as one of personal biases-usually the classroom teacher-who makes a racist decision to refer a child for special education. Those studies further the "bad teacher" mantra of the edreform crowd. (So naturally, it is those studies which get funded and published. Academia has been bought and paid for long ago. Sigh....)
Now, in an equal society, we should not see racial disparities. That's true. But who believes we live in an equal society?? We live in a deeply racist society, with real and damaging material impact on the quality of life, especially for kids, based on a legacy of racism.
District officials would have us believe that the rates of special education should be exactly the same, no matter the circumstances. And since they are not, teachers must just be over-identifying. Therefore, massive cutbacks in special education are not only warranted, they are a civil rights mandate.
No! Do not fall for the okey-doke, as my union president loves to say. They are using the language of equality to justify further inequalities.
If you live in a community experiencing massive environmental racism such as a lead poisoning epidemic, guess what? There should be higher rates of special education needs. If you live in a community facing tides of trauma and violence stemming from the intentional disinvestment, lack of affordable housing, lack of jobs, underfunded schools....guess what? All those factors can lead to learning challenges!! We know that too many Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can warp a child's ability to learn as well as affect behavior. Since we don't protect kids from trauma in our society, special education is frankly all we've got. Yet, we ignore these obvious factors because those in charge would have us believe "equality" just means all the percentages equal out without touching the true underlying racism beneath?
In fact, students with special needs in affluent, often white areas, are getting far MORE special education services. Low income kids and kids of color are actually already being denied fair and equitable access to special education services and these budget cuts are exacerbating a bigger problem. It's likely that kids with special needs are actually under-identified in systems that are so underfunded and understaffed, that it's not possible to follow up on every suspected case.
Make no mistake. Special education is under attack. We either stand up to save it, or we allow those in charge to continue to discriminate in the name of "equality."