Thursday, March 20, 2003


If you husk the covers off Nebraska's school spending, you'll expose a kernel of truth: we are blowing millions upon millions of dollars needlessly on special education.

Not only that, but our pattern appears to be racist. And the numbers of children identified as troubled learners is growing instead of shrinking, which casts aspersions on our instructional strategies for them, not to mention the cost-efficiency thereof. And we could just about solve our spending crisis and equalize educational opportunity among the races in one fell swoop if we’d do one thing right the first time:

Teach reading.

We're blowing it, especially for Nebraska's poor and minority students. And that ain't no corn.

According to the National Center on Learning Disabilities (www.ncld.org/advocacy) Nebraska had 16,299 students in the 1999-00 school year labeled as having ''specific learning disabilities.'' If they were all enrolled in the same place, it would form one of the largest school districts in the state. A big-spending one, too: spending on learning-disabled kids is several thousand dollars more per year per pupil than spending on regularly-instructed kids.

That means learning disability designations are costing Nebraska taxpayers tens of millions of dollars per year. But now it looks as though at least half of that excess spending is totally preventable with just a few common-sense changes in reading curriculum and instruction in the early grades.

Millions of dollars wasted, year after year? Damaging and destroying the educational prospects of a significant portion of the state's minority population?

That ain't no corn, either. That's a scandal.

According to the NCLD organization, Nebraska’s learning-disabled population is overrepresented by black, Hispanic and Native American children. It also reported that high-school completion rates for learning-disabled (LD) students is far less in Nebraska than for their peers nationwide. In Nebraska, 36.5 percent of the LD kids drop out at age 14 and older, compared to the national average of 27.1 percent of LD kids who fail to finish school.

According to the NCLD’s 23rd annual report to Congress measuring the 1999-00 school year compared to years past, Nebraska's learning-disabled numbers shot up from 13,458 to 16,299 children in the decade of the 1990s.

And according to a separate report issued by the National Association for the Education of African American Children With Learning Disabilities (www.charityadvantage.com/aacld/HarvardNewsRelease.asp), Nebraska's African-American students were six times more likely to be identified as ''emotionally disturbed'' than white students, and four times more likely to be labeled ''mentally retarded'' than whites.

The data were from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, which contended that inappropriate and inadequate special education services may be a leading factor in the overrepresentation of minority adolescents in the juvenile justice system.

The report said, ''Some minority children do need special education support, but far too often they receive low-quality services and watered-down curriculum instead of effective support, the research suggests. Moreover, research reveals that minority students are less likely to be mainstreamed than similarly situated white students.''

It concluded, ''To the extent that minority students are misclassified, segregated, or inadequately served, special education can contribute to a denial of equality of opportunity, with devastating results in communities throughout the nation.''

With that context, consider the impact of recent testimony before the U.S. Congress by Dr. Douglas Carmine of the University of Oregon, director of the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators (http://idea.uoregon.edu/~ncite/), who spoke March 13 before the Subcommittee on Education Reform of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, urging improvements in reading instruction:

-- 75 percent of the students who are still receiving reading remediation services after third grade never read at grade level.

-- 80 percent of the students labeled ''learning disabled'' actually have reading problems and to be accurate should instead be labeled ''instructional casualties.''

-- Only 14 percent of LD kids get any post-secondary education.

-- We can predict with a high degree of accuracy by January of the kindergarten year which students are at risk for reading problems, but because of special education funding formulas, we have to wait to give them reading remediation services until the third grade, when they have experienced failure and difficulties for two school years.

-- If we would intervene much earlier, right away, in kindergarten and first grade, 70 percent to 90 percent of those ''at risk of not reading'' kids could be brought to grade level and above by the end of second grade. Districts around the country that have switched to that model have experienced sharply reduced numbers of LD populations, exposing that the LD label in most cases is phony.

-- Since about half of all special-education students are there because of an LD label, if it is true that almost all of their ''disabilities'' could be cured by better reading strategies in the earlier grades, then special-education costs in any given district could be reduced by nearly 50 percent simply by switching immediately to systematic, intensive, explicit phonics instruction in the early grades.

To put that into perspective: in the Omaha Public Schools alone, spending on special-ed instruction is nearing 20 percent of spending on regular instruction according to the most recent OPS budget posted online at www.ops.org

The Omaha district spent $35.9 million for special-ed teachers this year, compared to $159.2 million for regular teachers. If it is possible to reduce special-ed enrollment by keeping half of the kids out of that spending category with better reading instruction early on, enormous savings far beyond the instructional budget could be realized. That would free up needed funds for the kids with medically-based disabilities, and reduce other budgets both in and out of the school district as a happy consequence . . . including juvenile justice costs, which are exploding.

Also of note: according to Thursday's Washington Times, in an article entitled ''House GOP to End Misclassifying of Illiterate Children,'' the nation's Republican leaders are confirming that local school districts all over the country are significantly over-identifying minority students as ''learning disabled'' and adding to an already ''crushing burden'' of complex and duplicative special-ed paperwork for teachers.

The article reported that special-ed federal funding was $1.43 billion in fiscal year 1988 but had risen to $8.9 billion in fiscal '03.

Provisions of the federal education bill, No Child Left Behind, are intended to simplify special-ed funding formulas and encourage better methods of teaching reading to sharply reduce LD rolls.

Bottom line: it is highly possible that most of Nebraska's 16,299 LD kids could be miraculously ''un-disabled'' if they were taught to read right in the first place . . . and untold millions of taxpayer dollars could have been saved.

And to anybody who cares about our gigantic budget problems, that certainly ain't no corn. That's an opportunity . . . bigtime.

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