“No Man’s life liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session”.

- attributed to NY State Judge Gideon Tucker

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Economics of Mainstreaming Handicapped Children

A friend of mine has been involved with Special Education this summer.

Asked by another school district if he were interested in teaching a handful of students for about half the summer, he has found himself, along with several assistants, essentially providing child care from 8-12 for half a dozen special needs children.

The tab for this state-provided daycare is astounding. There's my friend's compensation, several thousand dollars, plus that of his aides.

What's astounding is how little of value, other than warehousing, is going on in this taxpayer-funded half-day summer camp masquerading as school.

Of the children attending, several are autistic, several are heavily-medicated, and another is a foster child whose guardian's objective seems to be to place the child somewhere all day, every day. Since 'school' is free, whereas camps cost money, all of these children are in summer school.

Despite my friend's best efforts, his explanation of what takes place each day makes clear what a waste of society's money calling it 'school' is.

We talked about the larger issue of mainstreaming these children during the conventional school year. As one might expect, our viewpoints differed. He claimed that, if he were involved in Special Ed full time, then, over time, he could get a few of these children to learn something useful. That's the opinion of an affected, involved teacher who pretty much has to believe that his efforts make a difference.

What I see is something much different.

Before mainstreaming and Special Ed, most of these children weren't allowed anywhere near conventional K-8 or high schools. That's because the cost of attempting to educate them was so high, due to labor intensity, and the method of instructions so different from the mainstream, that it made no sense. As it is this summer, the teacher:student ratio approaches 2:3.

But nonsense is what we now have. What is being taught isn't remotely near normal education. None of these children, from my friend's description, are ever likely to be independent, productive adult members of society.

During a far-ranging discussion on the subject, I reminded my friend that by mainstreaming handicapped children into conventional schools, a capital spending burden was added to the ongoing operational expenses of each school.

From a strictly societal, economic view of education, it's almost impossible to justify mainstreaming. Public education, as we have it in the US, for better or for worse, is meant to educate the broad population of children to become economically productive adults. In a globally-competitive world, money spent on this function has to be as productive as other nations which do a good job of it, or our nation's resources are being comparatively wasted.

Thus, as heartless as it may seem, for all taxpayers to be saddled with the effort of making believe that behaviorally, emotionally and/or mentally handicapped children can be mainstreamed with no adverse effects on teachers, other students, the school systems, and costs/pupil, is unfair. Because, unlike most students, who can leave school able to be functioning adults capable of independently making their way in society, those handicapped students cannot do so.

The attempt to mainstream such children reflects our nation's, and my state's apparent disregard for the reality of limited economic resources, including tax dollars.

I'm fine with a state or the nation setting up defined-contribution plans for children with non-physical handicaps which prevent them from benefiting from the conventional school experience. But to subject entire school systems to costs and changes in order to benefit a few who won't actually attain the desired goals of such systems is simply unaffordable.

People like Tom Freston did our society no favor when, as a former Viacom senior executive, he fought New York to force the state to pay for private schooling for his autistic child which he could easily afford.

Every parent or teacher of an autistic or otherwise-handicapped child wants, perhaps needs, to believe that that child, with enough special, individualized attention, can become a functioning, independent adult. But the truth is, the chances are not very good of that being true. Thus, it's unfair to make the rest of society pay for every handicapped child's parents and teachers' hopes.

Liberals like to claim that the worth or measure of a society is how it treats its least-fortunate members. And, in a vacuum of real economics and global competition, that could be true.

But that's not the world in which we live, and if we continue to spend money at the rate I'm seeing through my friend's brush with "teaching" handicapped children this summer, I question whether our American society will be capable of maintaining its competitive edge among other nations for another generation.

At which point everyone's educational performance and our society's ability to afford what we now take for granted will be at risk.

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