Time Magazine's September 17 article, "Who Pays for Special Ed" plays into the hands of critics of special education who allege that parents seek "too much" for their children at the expense of the rest of taxpaying society.
The story sets itself up as a typical two-sided affair. One side (the parents of 9-year-old Luke) seeks a lot: help getting their son with autism to stop his tantrums and use the toilet and be able to sit in church. The other side are school district board members and administrators, who say they can't afford to send Luke to a $135,000-a-year, out of state boarding school. The parents are sending Luke to this school, the Boston Higashi School, and suing for tuition refunds.
There are problems to this conflict that are not stated explicitly in the story. For example, one can read between the lines of the conflict to see that a key factor here is a refusal by the Berthoud, Colo., school district to consider a compromise school placement in a neighboring town. Second, while Time explains to readers that schools don't have to offer disabled children the "best" education, but rather a "free and appropriate" education, the story gives clear voice to school officials who say that it's not their responsibility to teach a disabled kid how to live outside of school. In fact, with disabilities like autism, schools do have to include such life skills as toileting and feeding skills on a student's individualized education plan.
A third point. Time's writers sinned by burying the most important aspect of the special education problem here: a lack of federal funding to help support school districts educate disabled kids. It's not until the 12th paragraph of a 13-paragraph story that we learn that "the federal government picks up less than 18 percent of the additional costs of educating" students with disabilities.
No wonder all Time found to write about was families and schools fighting. With the federal government's abdication of responsibility on this issue, school officials and families of disabled kids are left to fight amongst themselves. And then critics of special ed have at it, saying we have to keep those costs in line because every dollar spent on disabled kids takes dollars away from "regular classrooms" or activities like sports and gifted-and-talented classes. It's set up as a false choice -- one between special education and "regular education" -- because the federal government is not in the equation.
P.S. to school officials in Berthoud, Colo.: If you had just discussed alternatives with Luke's family, maybe you wouldn't be spending so much in legal costs right now.