Thursday, January 09, 2003


As the Legislature reconvenes and begins to grapple with Nebraska's gigantic budget deficit, I begin a series of stories about public education in Nebraska, why we should begin a 10-year process of privatization, and how that can be done.

Topic 1: Special Education

In the 1992-93 school year, Nebraskans spent $128.1 million on special education in our K-12 public schools. That zoomed up to $205.2 million by the 2000-01 school year, a 60.13% increase.

Special education spending amounted to 17.7% of total K-12 education spending in Nebraska in 1992-93, but in the eight years since then it increased to 21.1% of the total ed bill, fueling the lion's share of the increase in expenses for public education.

The sad thing is, an estimated 80 percent of the kids labeled "special ed" do not have a medically-discernible physical disability at all. They aren't deaf, mentally handicapped or physically disabled. They just can't read very well. But it's not their fault: brain scan research is showing that the scans of dyslexic children transform into identical patterns with kids who read well, once the "dyslexics" have been taught to read properly, with systematic, intensive, explict phonics and a content-based curriculum.

"Learning disabilities" and their accompanying problems, both behavioral and social, miraculously disappear once the child is taught to read, in other words.

In the few schools around the country where kids are taught to read properly, with phonics only, the referrals to special ed by teachers who think a child is "learning disabled" drop to nearly zero.

There are significant financial incentives for getting more and more kids labeled "LD," with the most-often cited "advantage" the fact that there is federal reimbursement for some of the expenses. But think what we're doing: making kids dysfunctional and more expensive to educate, just because there's money in it for the education system.

Shame on us. Shame, shame.

We just cannot, will not, must not let this "phony special ed" continue, not even one more year. It is one of the chief reasons Nebraska's K-12 funding is in such a mess. Cutting off the funding for what is hurting kids would not only save tens of millions, but makes the most sense from a public-policy standpoint . . . especially if you care a rat about kids.

Now, the most compelling argument I have ever heard for sticking with our system of public funding for public schools is that to shift everything to the private sector would be disastrous for the real special education students -- the medically-disagnosed ones -- and their families. I totally agree.

Under my plan for privatization, over a 10-year period we would reduce state aid to education by 10 percent per year, per pupil, to zero in the 2014-15 school year. That's shocking, I know, and I'll report more on that idea later.

But for now, with regard to special ed: under my plan, statewide tax dollars would continue to pay for the needs of each special ed student that is above and beyond the annual cost of educating a nondisabled student, as figured from statewide totals reported to the State Ed Department. Accountability and policy for special ed students for those services that are specifically special-ed services would transfer from the locally-elected school boards, to the regionally-elected Educational Service Unit (ESU) boards. Those boards, by the way, now number 19 in Nebraska, but they should be reduced to three, one for each congressional district.

The point is that medically-diagnosable special education students would not be abandoned, under privatization. Responsibility and funding for them would be maintained at the state level with the state department of education and ESU staffs working in oversight with local districts to make sure their needs are met.

The difference would be this: there would no longer be a penny of state aid paid out for NON-medical special education.

I'm talking about the totally preventable and totally reversible conditions often labeled "specific learning disability," that are increasingly being exposed as not truly a physical, medically-diagnosable disability at all . . . but the consequence of boneheaded instructional methods in kindergarten and first grade.

Whole language, whole math and child-centered education have created this epidemic of "learning disabilities," and we need to cut off all funding to all schools which inflict those methods on kids and create this expensive dead weight that is dragging us all down in a sea of debt and overspending.

Bottom line: not a dime more state tax funding for any district that is not using systematic, intensive, explicit phonics, traditional classroom style, and content-based curriculum over the next 10 years, 'til we can wean our schools off the public teat once and for all.

For background, track your district's special ed spending on the State Education Department's financial website:

Annual Financial Reports

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