In Denial: Lack of Funding Means Lack of Services
“Coming together is a beginning; Keeping together is progress; Working together is success.” - Henry Ford
Meghan R. Keates | Greater New York
There are many ways in which we've greatly progressed as a society, but have not accomplished nearly enough.
It was 1959 when Scientific American published the article “Joey: A Mechanical Boy.” The author, Bruno Bettelheim, put forth the idea that autism was caused by a lack of maternal bonding, which prohibited emotional development and forced children like his subject, Joey, to re-engineer themselves as machines. In Bettelheim’s words,
“Joey, when we began our work with him, was a mechanical boy. He functioned as if by remote control…even while he performed actions that are intrinsically human, they never appeared to be other than machine started and executed.”
Bettelheim’s research was an attempt to explain the “abnormal” behavior of those who fall on the spectrum. Today, the explanation of autistic persons as “robots” would be seen as ludicrous, but at the time this was a groundbreaking hypothesis.
These allegations rallied activist groups, which typically consisted only of parents who had varying ideas of what autism was. At the time, very few people knew of autism spectrum disorders. Since public awareness remained insubstantial, resources were few and far between.
In 1975, Congress made it a requirement for public schools in the United States to provide specialized education services to all eligible children with disabilities. It wasn’t until 1991 that the federal government made autism a special education category.
Every day, approximately 50 million students between the ages of 3 and 21 attend public schools in the United States. Around 13% of these students rely on free specialized services. The majority have a learning disability (35%), speech or language impairment (21%) or fall within the expanded autism spectrum (13%).
Research has shown a sharp spike in Autism prevalence since 1975. At that time, only 1 in 5,000 newborns was diagnosed with Autism. Numbers rose 600% by 2009, and since then have continued to rise dramatically. One reason could be that as a whole, we are labeling more children with an Autism diagnosis - or expanding the spectrum. With more students entering special education programs comes the need for increased funding. Unfortunately, just the opposite is happening.
It’s no secret that public school districts receive insufficient financial support from state and federal governments, and the situation is growing steadily worse. For instance, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act - commonly referred to as IDEA - once provided over 1/3 of the cost of educating students with disabilities. In 2014, funding from IDEA dropped dramatically to less that 1/2 of its original contribution. As a result, local districts now shoulder the burden of covering more than 85% of the cost needed to provide quality educational programs to students. In addition, primary funding mechanisms vary significantly from state to state, meaning that the majority of states in the U.S. are not required to give a predetermined amount of funding towards special education.
According to the ECS 50-State Review, thirty-three states allocate funds to special ed programs using primary funding formulas. Although it increases transparency and predictability, formula funding allows schools to distribute funds with reduced oversight from policymakers.
In the twelve states that fund special ed through categorical funds, the state provides school districts with a designated amount of funding which can only be spent on students with disabilities. This is a more reliable tactic since there is a predetermined amount of funding that goes towards special education.
Only five states fund students with disabilities through reimbursements. In this approach, detailed spending reports are submitted annually to the state, and a portion of spending is reimbursed. As of now, Wyoming is the only state which reimburses 100% of funds for special education.
The majority of states use formulas which are unregulated by policymakers, meaning that the states can choose any amount of funding to go towards special education services. Since students with disabilities often require more resources than other students, many states are not meeting their needs. The current system is not working, and it’s the students who are suffering.
The state of Texas is just one example of how school districts are not meeting the needs of students. A recent investigation by the Houston Chronicle revealed that school districts within Texas have illegally limited the amount of students who can receive special education services to a mere 8.5% of the total student body, in order to save money. In comparison, the national average of student enrollment in special education is 13%. As of 2016, Texas has the lowest proportion of students in special education when compared to the entire country - and not by happenstance. Major cities such as Houston and Dallas provide special education services to fewer than 7.5% of students. In comparison, New York City provides special education for 18% of students. This low rate has allowed Texas to save billions of dollars over the past decade.
Federal law clearly stipulates that schools are responsible for providing special education eligibility evaluations. It has not been happening. Districts in Texas have discouraged parents from requesting evaluations (illegal), falsely informed families that they are solely responsible for funding these evaluations (illegal), told families that there is a waiting list for evaluations (illegal), claimed that children can only be tested once every two years (illegal), or ignored requests altogether (illegal, illegal, illegal).
We can no longer allow our schools, our government, and our society to ignore the plight of underserved students with special needs. Autism remains one of the fastest growing developmental disorders in the United States. Meanwhile, the funding necessary to keep up with an increasing demand for special education programs is dwindling.
So it’s true to say that we’ve come far.
But it’s abundantly clear that we are not doing enough.