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My Turn: Is special education money well spent

Posted Apr 09 2009 7:16pm
I have just read an interesting article in the my turn section of Newsweek magazine written by a woman who has an autistic son and educationally gifted daughter who experiences the frustration that society is willing to provide ample funding for her son's special education under the IDEA law but not extra funding for her daughter. She seems to think gifted children should get more funding because they are bored and unchallenged in school. One good thing about the article was the last sentence which stated that if the autistic boy's gifted sister got the education she needed at taxpayer expense, she might find a cure for autism. At least this author does not adhere to a neurodiversity philosophy.

The question is, should either the gifted or the challenged person receive extra funding, I believe the answer is no in both cases.

If the author of the article would like to have a special gifted education for her daughter, let her pay for it out of her own pocket. Why should the taxpayer's foot the bill? The gifted child can clearly do the work and has an easier path than most. Richard Nixon came from a poor family, always went to public schools and received scholarships to ivy league schools, though he could not afford to live away from home, so attended Whittier college instead. He went on to graduate third in his class at Duke law school. Bill Clinton also came from a family of modest means, yet managed to become a Rhoades scholar and went on to Yale law school and became president of the United States. The daughter of friends of my parents also went to public school, but then went on to do well and attend yale university and later get a doctorate in english literature. If this girl is bored in a nongifted program, perhaps the girl's mother could encourage her to learn things on her own and acquire a broader education by going to the library.

Of more salient interest is whether the state should pay the extra costs of special education for her autistic son at all. Is the IDEA a good law or just a travesty? It costs taxpayers billions of dollars, jams courts with parents who litigate for all the pie-in-the-sky promises that this law has to offer and drains their finances. It discriminates against the poor who cannot afford to pay attorneys to help them navigate through the maze of complex special ed law. Only the relatively wealthy are benefited by IDEA with the more impoverished parents of disabled kids getting the short end of the stick.

Does this law really help kids live better lives? Will it improve their outcome after age 21 when they are aged out of the program? If there are any statistics, controlled studies or facts that demonstrate this I am certainly not aware of them.

I only know of the other side of the coin about an article some years ago in the Atlanta Journal Constitution stating that the more years children spent in special education, the lower their achievement was academically. Also not long ago I wrote about half of california special ed students failing the high school exit exam.

Ivar Lovaas published the famous 1987 study claiming that half of all autistics he treated with ABA functioned at a completely normal level and were indistinguishable from their peers. In effect, he claimed that he could cure autism in half of all cases. This study is used as evidence in special education lawsuits in order to obtain this costly treatment to students at taxpayer expense. Yet, the study employed aversives which are now outlawed in California where I live and probably other jurisdictions. Lovaas also distinguished between clinic based and work group ABA, the former consisting of many more hours and better trained personnel. His study employed clinic based ABA. As far as I know, there is nothing in the law that prevents a parent from suing for work group ABA or compromising with a school district so that the costly and unpleasant litigation can be avoided by both sides and having the school district pay for less hours and lesser trained personnel than were used in the 1987 study.

Most germane of all, there are no published adult outcomes of the children whom Lovaas treated. They are now in their late 30's and early 40's and we have no idea what happened to them or how they did occupationally or whether they functioned at a completely normal level as adults. Lovaas has never published these results in a peer reviewed journal. Perhaps the reason for this is that the outcomes were actually less than stellar.

On an interesting sidenote, I also wrote an essay about the irony of the Lovaas institute for early intervention and the social security office being located on the same floor of the same building in West Los Angeles. I submitted this essay to the Newsweek My Turn column. I never heard back from them. They only publish 1 in 200 essays they receive. Unlike the lady who authored this latest piece, mine did not make the cut. Instead, I published it on my web page The question still needs to be asked. Are the recipients of Lovaas' interventions today, the SSI collectors of tomorrow? There is certainly no evidence that the answer is not yes. Perhaps after making a visit to Lovaas' office in west L.A. they will go back to the same floor of the same building to apply for social security disability.

Perhaps it is really time to rethink the whole IDEA law. I believe it is time to abolish it.
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