Why the Public School System Exaggerates Student Disabilities

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

Among the problems facing the public school system, perhaps the least familiar is our troubled approach to students with disabilities. Since 1984, spending on “special needs” students has mushroomed more than 300%, compared to overall budget increases of about 50%. This commitment to equity is noble, but the means we use to implement it are not. School divisions have perverse incentives to maximize special needs dollars under present funding formulas, yet nobody knows whether the extra money is being successfully directed.

A new Frontier Centre backgrounder examines these perverse incentives and suggests a switch to a policy that is based on outcomes, not process. It asks for a cleaner standard of allocating the money, one based on student ability to function at a regular academic level. Mainstreaming children with the potential for doing that makes sense. Integrating severely disabled children can harm our public schools by diluting the resources available for regular instruction. Moreover, it often compromises the system’s ability to meet their special needs.

Are all the extra dollars justified? It is highly unlikely that the number of disabled students has tripled in 30 years, even though we have become more skilled at identifying handicaps and dedicating resources to them. A more likely explanation is that divisions have an economic incentive to apply for as much special education funding as possible, regardless of whether or not it is needed. It is clear that insufficient controls are in place to restrain divisions from doing so.

Children with physical or mental handicaps are currently classified into three levels. The first – which in theory includes those with IQs under 50, a significant disability – brings a division only $260 a year per pupil in additional resources. Levels II and III – which cover individuals with severe and very severe handicaps and combinations of them – triggers much more generous outlays, at about $8,500 and $19,000 per capita respectively. In no cases are divisions required to demonstrate results from receiving additional funds.

This year, special ed spending in Manitoba amounts to about $104.2 million. But Level I allocations, $45.7 million, are considered to be “flexible base support,” which means that divisions can spend up to half the money in whatever way they like. School districts can therefore maximize their budgets by identifying more special needs students while dedicating a large portion of the extra funds to programs that have nothing to do with them. “It is not surprising,” the backgrounder suggests, “that special education expenditures have continued to grow at exponential speed.”

The problem is not a local one. Our litigious neighbours to the south live under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), a federal mandate with equally perverse incentives. Classify a child as “disabled” and more funds start to flow. “Special ed” there has become a dumping ground for students with all sorts of behavioural problems, often those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are not disabled at all but merely difficult to teach. But the funds are almost never tied to results.

However, divisions may soon be at risk from an unexpected source. British Columbia’s Human Right Tribunal is about to rule in the case of a student with dyslexia who failed to learn to read in a public school that didn’t apply its budget to teaching the child effectively.

In 2001, at a meeting of the Manitoba chapter of the education society, Phi Delta Kappa, a middle-school teacher from St. Vital complained that 30 students were going to arrive in her classroom at the beginning of September, five of whom were classified with special needs. Yet she had no assurance that resources to handle them would in place on time. Teachers commonly and frequently express concerns that special ed students can overwhelm the classroom, by asking teachers to deliver more than they can.

An option that looks good, as recommended by Katherine Wagner at the astute Society for the Advancement of Education in Kelowna, might be the Alberta solution. “Inclusion is a philosophical direction that may not always meet the need of every special needs child,” she writes. “In recognizing this, Alberta allows parents of some special needs students a full voucher to enroll in a more suitable private school.”

However the funds are spent, Wagner wants “consistent accountability for learning at the individual and program level.” That means that educators must be aware of the consequences if educational goals are not met.

We do the disabled no favours by promising equity and then failing to have them learn socially useful skills in school. Likewise, we do the other children a disservice by having them learn less when a disabled student is in their classroom. In both cases, we do a disservice to the teacher.