The Special Ed D.C. Bubble

By 08/24/2009

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One of the (many) problems with education policy analysts is that a large number of them live in or around Washington, D.C.

D.C. is a remarkably abnormal place.  Because of the giant distortions of the presence and subsidies from the federal government as well as the atypical set of people who live in that area, policy experiences in DC are very often quite different from the experiences in the rest of the country.

The problem is that people tend to generalize from their immediate experiences.  If something happens to you, you hear about it from people you know, or you read about it in your local paper, you tend to think that’s the way it is for everyone.  So, DC education analysts are always at-risk of drawing policy conclusions based on incredibly atypical experiences.

For a prime example see Andy Rotherham and Sara Mead’s thoughts on special education vouchers:

In fact, if special education identification led to funding for private school attendance, it would be unusual if this did not create an incentive to participate in special education in many communities, particularly those with low-performing public schools. For example, Washington, D.C., and New York City currently contend with substantial abuse of special education by affluent parents. In addition, there are reports of parents seeking to have their students diagnosed with learning disabilities in order to gain accommodations on the SAT or for other reasons. [fn 27]

For another example, listen to Amber Winkler, Mike Petrilli, and Rick Hess discuss our most recent study on special education vouchers (it starts around minute 11:00).  They generally do a good job of describing the study but they express doubts about our findings because they believe that parents, especially affluent parents, have considerable influence over special education placements.

On what basis do these D.C. education analysts believe that a significant number of parents, especially affluent parents, are gaming the special education diagnostic system to get access to advantageous accommodations or expensive private placements?  The evidence Andy and Sara provide in footnote 27 consists largely of newspaper accounts from Washington, D.C..  Mike and Rick provide no source and we can only assume that they are drawing upon their immediate experiences.

Of course, the antidote to mistaken generalizations from our limited and potentially distorted set of immediate experiences is the reliance on systematic data.  If we step back and look at the broad evidence, we can avoid some of the easy mistakes that result from assuming that everyone’s experience is like ours.  As it turns out, DC is a gigantic outlier.

School officials, not parents, make the determination of whether a student has a particular disability and what accommodations are necessary.  Parents are entitled to challenge the decisions of school officials, but they rarely do and even more rarely win those challenges.

In the fall of 2007 there were 6,718,203 students receiving special education services between the ages of 3 and 21.  And that year there was a grand total of 14,834 disputes from parents resolved by a hearing or agreement prior to completion of a hearing (see Table 7-3).  That’s about .2% of special education cases that are disputed by parents or 1 in 500.

And as Marcus Winters and I described in our new study, schools prevail in most of these disputes:

According to Mayes and Zirkel’s (2001) review of the literature, “schools prevailed in 63% of the due process hearings in which placement was the predominant issue.” In cases where the matter went beyond an administrative hearing and was actually brought to court, one study cited in Mayes and Zirkel’s review found that “schools prevailed in 54.3% of special education court cases,” which the authors say is in line with the findings of other studies. In suits seeking reimbursement for private school expenses (because a special-education voucher program is unavailable), Mayes and Zirkel found that “school districts won the clear majority (62.5%) of the decisions.

In addition, as Marcus Winters and I documented in a 2007 Education Next article, private placement is amazingly rare.  Using updated national numbers from the federal government, as of fall 2007 there were 67,729 disabled students ages 6 through 21 who were being educated in private schools at parental request and public expense.  That’s only 1.13% of the 6,007,832 disabled students ages 6 through 21 and barely one tenth of one percent of all public school students.  If private placement supports Andy and Sara’s claim of “substantial abuse of special education” we’d have to redefine “substantial” to include minuscule proportions of students.

The systematic evidence clearly shows that school officials dominate special education, parents rarely challenge school officials’ decisions, schools win most of those challenges from parents, and parents very rarely get their children placed in private schools at public expense.

So, why do Andy, Sara, Rick, and Mike ( as well as all of those DC reporters who Andy and Sara cite) believe that parents, especially affluent parents, control special education decisions?  Well, perhaps it is because in D.C. parents do have much more control than in the rest of the country.

Remember how there were 14,384 students nationwide who resolved a dispute with their school over special education in a hearing or by agreement prior to the completion of a hearing?  DC contained 2,689 of those 14,384, or about 18% (see Table 7-3).  But DC represents only .15% of total student enrollment nationwide.  That means parents in DC are about 120 times more likely to lodge these challenges than the typical parent nationwide.

And while private placement is very rare, it is somewhat less rare in DC.  Out of 67,729 students privately placed at parental request, 1,864 of them were in DC, or about 2.75% of the total.  Again, given that DC student enrollment represents only .15% of national enrollment, DC students are about 18 times more likely to receive a private placement than students nationwide.

It’s clear that DC is just different — very different.  Making generalizations from DC experiences or newspaper articles is like saying that Seattle is a sunny place if you happen to arrive there on a day when the sun was shining.

D.C. isn’t the only outlier.  New York is also pretty atypical when it comes to special education.  Dispute resolution hearings in New York state are about 7 times more common than in the rest of the country.  And private placements are almost 3 times more common in the state of New York than they are nationwide.

It’s too bad that so many of our media and policy elites live in these two atypical places because they are giving us a very distorted picture of special education.  They need to get outside of their bubbles and rely on systematic data rather than immediate experiences.

Comment on this article
  • Dee Alpert says:

    Why is it that the pundits railing against parents’ using statutorily-established processes to get their kids the special education programs and services they feel they need never, never look at the public schools’ objective data- scores and outcomes – for kids with disabilities, much less compare public schools’ results with those obtainable from non-public schools and professionals?

    The vast majority of kids schools classify as having disabilities are in one of the many “mild” categories. Yet the unmanipulated data – which one must ferret out on one’s own from USDOE’s tables – shows that only about 50% of all kids with disabilities ever graduate high school with any cognizable credential whatsoever – including “certificates” for severely disabled kids which show only that they’ve met some non-academic goals in their education plans?

    The private placements and tutoring services such parents seek are typically meaningfully research-validated as effective for their kids’ specific, professionally-diagnosed disabilities. I have yet to see a school district produce similar objective documentation for the claimed efficacy of its special ed. programs or services.

    When it comes to very severe disabilities such as autism, the choice is often clear. The private special ed. schools parents seek tend to offer rigorous research-based programs which hold the promise of producing kids who may stand a chance of independent life after school. Public school programs for the very same kid simply do not. Period. This data is clear, unequivocal … and pundit-ignored.

    When it comes to the “lighter” disabilities such as professionally-diagnosed dyslexia, the stark disparities in outcomes for the kids are of the same magnitude. Many of the private special ed. schools provide rigorous remediation by staff thoroughly trained in one of the remedial programs based on Orton-Gillingham. Public school districts rarely offer anything in the same ballpark … and their dyslexic kids are not successfully remediated and drop out in large, significant numbers and proportions. Lives totally wasted!

    The federal special ed. law – the IDEA – offers one of the few venues for any parents to legitimately hold schools accountable for their failures, by providing that the parents can force the schools to pay for non-school programs and services. The system for adjudicating these disputes is heavily-stacked in the districts’ favor since state ed. depts. – not known for setting up districts to lose money at parental demand – run these hearings and the hearing officers are often district officials’ cronies from the next county over.

    Finally, as the wave of kid with autism has hit the public schools, under-trained, under-knowledged staff have been found in significant numbers to do what under-trained, under-knowledged staff did to severely disabled children and adults in institutions such as Willowbrook. Tales of sheer, shocking physical abuse are rife these days, to the point that the House Education Subcommittee held a hearing specifically on this point in May 2009. Media reports of teachers being prosecuted for gross criminal abuse of profoundly disabled children proliferate. The GAO reported that a number of teachers who had actually abusively killed disabled children were still fully-certified and teaching – or abusing – other disabled children.

    The Justice Dept.’s Civil Rights Div. just slammed NYS for abuse of children in juvenile facilities, including severe abuse of those who are documentably extremely mentally ill. Ironically, exactly the same things the Civil Rights Div. slammed in these juvie jail placements are now commonplace in many publicly-operated schools and it is alarmingly common to hear of disabled children suffering terrible physical injuries as a result.

    What one hears a lot of these days is parents demanding IDEA hearings to get private school placements for their severely disabled kids simply “to keep them safe,” after learning of horrific school abuse from others which their children could not tell them about.

    The pundits who cite a few wealthy parents in Scarsdale fighting to have their kids classified as “learning disabled” so they can get extra time on the SAT exams are taking cheap shots at the vast majority of parents of kids who have legitimate, professionally-diagnosed disabilities and who just want their kids to be given the opportunity to grow up as independent members of the community. The objective numbers for the public school special education industry indicate clearly that public schools do not actually equip these kids to do so. That’s what most of these parents are fighting for.

    What the pundits never concede, or admit, is that if the public schools are allowed to retain their monopoly on special education programs and services, and legitimate accountability is lessened or eliminated, the public schools will never be forced to improve what they do. Meanwhile, the kids’ parents will keep on being responsible for their kids, often well into adulthood, and ultimately, society will pay for the public schools’ failures, one way or the other, after the kids stop their schooling and turn out not to be able to suport themselves or participate in civic life.

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