Hagiography of Unintended Consequences

Lori Sturdevant observes the anniversary of Minnesota’s Special Education Act – the government effort that started the series of programs that currently…

…well, let’s get back to that.

Sturdevant – as reliable a flak for the “no new taxes are too extreme!” lobby in the DFL (and those parts of the Minnesota Republican Party that were indistinguishable from the DFL for most of 40 years) starts by talking with former governor Al Quie:

He’s the only surviving member of the eight-legislator interim study commission appointed in 1955 “to make a complete study and investigate the problem of handicapped children.”I was a green, wet-behind-the-ears, eager-to-learn state senator,” Quie recalled last week. But the 31-year-old farmer from Dennison had caught the attention of a fellow member of the governing board of the Lutheran Welfare Society and the chairman of the state Senate Welfare Committee, Sen. Elmer L. Andersen.

That’s right. The panel that put Minnesota out front in the education of exceptional children (they soon learned not to say “handicapped,” Quie said) included two future governors. Elmer also recruited his brother-in-law, Sen. Stanley Holmquist, a school superintendent and a future Senate majority leader. This enterprise was loaded with talent.

Yaaaaaay, government!

Because of the efforts of the “best and brightest” of a generation of Minnesota politicians, the problem was solved! Right?

Well, of course not. While exceptional kids remain largely exceptional, Special Education has become yet another political cudgel:

Quie remembers no partisan fight over the program’s cost (this was before the “no new taxes” era.)

It was also long before the era of “everything a kid does that doesn’t fit in with a school, teacher or administrator’s idea of what a kid needs to do to fit in with the program is a ‘handicap'”.

Today, special ed helps kids with genuine handicaps. It also is a dumping ground for every child that doesn’t behave exactly as he or she is “supposed to”. Special ed classes teach kids with real problems and issues; they also are a place where kids that are handicapped by their inability to sit in a chair for six hours in a hot, airless room, march in straight lines, or raise their hands and ask permission for a drink or to go to the bathroom.

And because they’re in those “special classes” to teach them to conform and comply with that model, the school district gets more money. Lots of it. How big a vortex?

Find yourself a parent with a “Special Needs” child with a mild “Educational Behavioral Disorder” (EBD); ask them what sort of “assistance” they’re getting from the district. Then, ask them how easy it is to get the “assistance” to stop.

Hint; you can’t. If the school district were truly burdened by having kids with mild problems sitting in “special” classes, they’d be eager to cycle kids with small, manageable problems back out of special ed, to free up the funding. Right?

If special ed funding were a zero-sum situation, sure. But it’s not. Every kid that gets designated “special ed” triggers an entitlement of money, and that entitlement remains as long as that child is considered “special”. There is no incentive for the school district to get the kid out of special ed. Ever.

It’s a cash cow. And a political cudgel:

Amazing what 50 years of inflation does, isn’t it? It’s almost as amazing as what has happened to school district budgets since Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature removed inflation from the special-ed funding formula in 2003.

The state’s share of special-education funding now averages about 40 percent, and it’s dropping. The feds pay another 14 percent — despite their long-ignored promise to pay 40 percent. That means that in virtually every Minnesota school district, funds intended to reduce class sizes, buy materials or pay for extracurricular programs are now being used for special ed.

Keep that trend going, and special education will be doomed to political trouble in the state of its birth. Already, said Senate E-12 funding chairman LeRoy Stumpf, school superintendents tell him they are reluctant to disclose how much they are spending on special ed, for fear of a citizen backlash.

Perhaps – if you removed the sentimental syrup that Sturdevant pours over the story, with her reminiscences of politicans’ salad days and the “golden age” of Minnesota politics, where DFLers and Republicans united to act like DFLers – we could start talking about the grounds for that backlash. Special Ed is both a dumping ground for kids who don’t conform and comply to demands of an educational model that could hardly be designed worse for many kids, and a bottomless source of extra funding when applied, as a permanent, open-ended entitlement – to kids who are only “special” because they don’t color inside the lines, figuratively speaking.

Perhaps it’s time for that backlash to happen.

4 thoughts on “Hagiography of Unintended Consequences

  1. There’s more to the “backlash” story. If parents of “normal” kids knew how much was being thrown down the rathole of “special” education, they’d storm the castle.

    For every dollar spent on classroom aides to help rambunctious boys act more like nice girls, there’s one less dollar for classroom things that benefit everybody else.

    For every dollar spent on classroom aides to “mainstream” the hopelessly handicapped, there’s one less dollar for classroom things that benefit the rest.

    That’s why we have endless fundraisers to buy classroom supplies.

    No Child Left Behind is based on sentiment, not on economics. If we devoted every single dollar earned by every single Minnesotan to special education, it wouldn’t be enough to make the lives of the hopelessly handicapped kids identical to other kids. But we could make the other kids as hopelessly uneducated as the lowest few.

    There’s a finite amount of money in the world. Some kids will be left behind at some point, no matter how unfair it is. Look for the “special” students three years out of school – how are they doing in mainstream society, without full-time aides hovering over them to enhance their self-esteem? Better to make the hard choice to intentionally leave behind the few in order that the many might succeed, than to drag down the many to the level of the few.

    There’s a reason economics is called The Dismal Science. Pointing out truth doesn’t make a person unfeeling. Sure, I’d care if it were my kid being left behind, being shortchanged by the system. But my kid already is being shortchanged so we can spend umpteen billions on Individualized Learning Plans and Special Aides for kids who are going to end up working for Goodwill anyway.

    Sorry. Reality is uncomfortable. Deal.


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