For decades, there has been a debate about how to serve the needs of students with disabilities, often putting parents, educators, and policymakers at odds. Parents want their children to receive the best possible care. Educators want to be trained in evidence-based practices and have sufficient resources to implement those practices. The aim of policymakers can be harder to reconcile. Governing decisions are often made with an eye toward reelection, as lawmakers weigh the desires of their constituents against the realities of politics. Campaigns are expensive, and the currency of PAC contributions, endorsements, and “dark money” seldom flows with no strings attached. Add the fact that too few constituents actually vote, and it’s easy to see how the scales tip.
As a result, many of our leaders have focused on cost-cutting and limiting “government,” which sounds fine in a campaign ad but belies the fact that “government” includes vital services for children in need. Educators are a “government” resource that becomes a target for cuts rather than a funding priority, and children are the casualties of those policy-making decisions. Failing to fund and provide for the needs of students—especially those with disabilities—plays right into the hands of those who want to privatize education. What better way to justify private school vouchers for students with special needs than to cause the public system serving those children to fail by withholding resources?
We saw the consequences of ill-conceived state policy earlier this year when the federal government concluded a long-term investigation of how Texas educates students with disabilities. US Department of Education officials determined that Texas had denied special education services to students by adopting policies that would limit the number of students receiving such services. One strategy had the effect of placing a ceiling on how many students could be identified as needing special education.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen detriments of policy making based on arbitrary caps. With the standardized testing boom that followed 2001’s enactment of No Child Left Behind, we saw caps placed on the number of students who could be exempted from taking those tests. Who remembers the “65 percent solution,” proposed by Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne more than a decade ago? Promoted as a panacea for school funding by requiring 65 percent of appropriations to be earmarked for “instruction,” it was quickly debunked as having been pulled out of thin air with no statistical basis or grounding in reality. Now, we have Gov. Abbott proposing another cap—this time on growing property tax revenue at the local level, which happens to be the bedrock of funding for our public schools.
Attempts to arbitrarily limit what we can raise and spend on public education will fail as long as we have no means of similarly capping the true needs of students. Neglecting to identify a student as needing special education services does not negate that student’s needs, and neither does restricting the funding provided for those needs. It’s time to demand state laws and policies that reflect actual needs rather than “solutions” that fit neatly into a campaign platform built around sound bites about limiting government.
There’s no better time to make those demands than during an election year. The primaries are over, but some runoffs are pending, and there are still some important contests to be decided in November’s general election. If you’re not already talking to your candidates, now is the time to ask how they will address school funding and what they will do to ensure our most vulnerable students never fall through the cracks again.