The education establishment claims that a burgeoning population of special-ed students is overwhelming the public schools, draining needed resources from the general education budget. The answer to the crisis, educrats argue, is to boost the federal special-ed subsidy—and, they add, with the law governing special education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), coming up for congressional renewal, now’s the perfect time to do it. But the growing special-ed population is an artificial problem, largely of the schools’ own making.
Virtually all of the 41 percent growth in the special-ed population since IDEA began has been in a single category: “specific learning disabilities,” like dyslexia and other relatively mild reading and math difficulties. Since 1976, the percentage of these learning-disabled kids out of the total student population has risen from 1.8 percent to 6 percent. Some advocates claim that better medical care, by allowing more premature babies burdened with assorted mental and physical ailments to survive, is behind this big increase. If this were true, though, you’d also see a higher percentage of other disabilities associated with premature birth, such as mental retardation and cerebral palsy, among students. Yet kids with disabilities other than the “specific learning” kind have actually declined as a percentage of the student population since the mid-seventies, probably because of improved medical technology and public-health measures such as containing or removing lead paint.
What’s going on, of course, is that school officials are labeling some children “learning disabled” who aren’t suffering from real disorders. It’s absurdly easy for schools to play this game, since diagnosing a learning disability is notoriously unscientific. To categorize a student learning-disabled, a school need only point out that he has performed significantly worse in a subject area like math or reading than his IQ score would predict. But such a mismatch between potential and accomplishment can flow from many things other than a disability, including poor effort or exposure to bad teaching.
Schools have lots of reasons that might lead them to mislabel students—to get troublemakers out of regular classrooms, say, or to exempt struggling students from accountability testing. What’s more, there’s no financial disincentive to mislabeling; in fact, the big special-ed subsidies that state and federal governments shower on the schools, which depend in part on how many “disabled” students a school enrolls, might even make diagnosing more students disabled a financial plus.
It would be a big mistake to pour more money into special education before addressing the real reasons for the growth in learning disabilities.