Thursday, June 28, 2007

Budget Watch: Strickland Likely to Veto Special Ed. Vouchers

The budget passed its floor vote with a unanimous-minus-one vote last night. Still not definitive word from Strickland about special ed. vouchers, but word seems to be that he will veto. Last night Jill noted a quick mention in Openers that Strickland said he would "almost certainly" veto the program.

Then this morning, this in the Dispatch story:

    A key item likely to be excised is a proposed voucher test program for special-needs students. The program would offer about 8,000 students with individualized education programs up to $20,000 apiece toward the cost of private-school tuition.
No source is given, but it looks like Dispatch reporters are hearing murmurs. All of this is consistent with the grapevine hum I'm hearing. Rest assured, special ed. vouchers will come up again. This is the second go round; Sen. Kevin Coughlin proposed much the same bill last year, and he's nothing if not persistent.

It's entirely possible that at some point we will have a special ed vouchers bill. This one is as bad as a proposal can be -- basically a new middle class entitlement. Even voucher supporters should think twice about it.


Unknown said...

Thanks for flagging the Dispatch article on this - I hadn't seen it yet. I can understand protecting sources, but if you're a newspaper of record, I would have thought that there was greater expectation, by the editors, that the reporter provide a source in the article.

But what do I know?

On the merits, again - I'm completely stymied as to why, after all these literally decades of everyone knowing that public schools, in general, do a much better job in providing special education services, legislators think that vouchers are they way to go.

The only answer? Because they think it's politically the easy route into wholesale voucher conversion.

I actually think it shows the legislators up for being incredibly shallow about the subject of special education and simply using a particularly sympathetic student and family population to further their interest in privatizing education.

I don't see it happening. But I've been wrong many times.

Anonymous said...

This voucher approach to providing educational services for our special education children acknowledges that one size doesn’t fit all and that there are effective alternative programs beyond the traditional classroom. Private providers are, in many cases, able to tailor programs to fit the individual needs of students. In addition, the private provider class sizes are frequently smaller, which means more individual attention for each child.

This alternative approach also recognizes that disabled students face important and significant non-academic challenges. Behavior problems are one such challenge. Parents participating in the McKay Scholarship Program, a similar scholarship program in Florida, report significantly fewer behavior problems. Another challenge is non-special-needs students bullying special education students. Results from the Florida program suggest that private schools are able to develop more effective and flexible discipline policies than public schools, and they are better prepared to protect these vulnerable children.

Please read this Wall Street Journal article below which emphasizes the need for these vouchers--school districts are not doing a good job of inclusion and meeting the needs of these students.

Disabled Children Join
Peers, Strain Teachers;
'We Need More Help'

June 25, 2007; Page A1

SCRANTON, Pa. -- When school started last August, veteran first-grade
teacher Patricia McDermott made sure to place one student, 8-year-old Andrea
Gavern, in a seat beside her own desk.

Andrea suffers from a rare genetic condition called Williams Syndrome, which
causes learning disabilities and medical ailments such as heart problems and
difficulty eating. Knowing that Andrea had disrupted her kindergarten
classes a year earlier, Ms. McDermott wanted to keep her new pupil under
close watch.

The strategy backfired. One morning, Andrea swept an arm
along the teacher's desk, scattering framed photos of Ms. McDermott's family
across the classroom. A glass frame shattered, and another hit a student in
the arm. Though no one was hurt, Ms. McDermott says she lost hours of
instruction time getting the children to settle down after the disruption.

From the first weeks of school, Ms. McDermott found Andrea's plight
heartbreaking. "No! No! No!" she remembers her student screaming at times.
"Want Mommy! Want Mommy!"

"She looked at me, like she was saying, 'Help me,' and I couldn't. How could
I possibly give Andrea what she needs?"

Years ago, students like Andrea would have been taught in separate
classrooms. Today, a national movement to "mainstream" special-education
students has integrated many of them into the general student body. As a
result, regular teachers are instructing more children with severe
disabilities -- often without extra training or support.

This year, Ms. McDermott counted 19 students in her class at Whittier
Elementary School. Five had disabilities, including attention deficit
disorder and delays in reading and math. The teacher worried that she was
failing all her students -- especially Andrea. "It used to be a joy to go to
work," she says. "Now all I want to do is run away."

In Scranton and elsewhere, the rush to mainstream disabled students is
alienating teachers and driving some of the best from the profession. It has
become a little-noticed but key factor behind teacher turnover, which
experts say largely accounts for a shortage of qualified teachers in the

Each year, about 16% of teachers quit their jobs, either leaving the
profession or moving to another school, according to recent U.S. Department
of Education surveys. Of those, 35% cite difficulties with mainstreaming
special-education students as a main reason for their dissatisfaction,
according to an analysis of the data by Richard Ingersoll, a professor of
education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

"It's a red flag," Prof. Ingersoll says. "Mainstreaming is putting pressure
on teachers... and the proponents of this reform are going to need to
address it sooner or later."

Neil Hunt, a seventh-grade math teacher in the Fairfax County, Va., public
schools, recently quit his job in part because of mainstreaming. "I don't
feel I can do what's necessary for these kids," says Mr. Hunt, a former Navy
lieutenant who plans to return to the service in a civilian job. "And some
of the kids' behavior is such a distraction for the rest of the class that
they're losing a lot of time, too."

In Arizona, Tom Horne, the state's superintendent of schools, says
mainstreaming special-education students with behavior problems can be
"extremely destructive" to teachers' morale and "a big factor in teachers'

Also known as "inclusion," mainstreaming reverses a once-common practice
that Congress determined was unjust: the segregation of disabled children in
settings without proper instruction. Many educators say children learn more
through mainstreaming because they are taught by better-qualified teachers
and gain valuable social skills from their peers. By 2005, about 54% of
special-education students were taught in "fully inclusive" settings --
spending 80% or more of the school day in a regular classroom -- up from 33%
in 1990.

Pennsylvania has been a major battleground in the national wars over special
education. Litigation here helped lead to the 1975 federal legislation now
known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires a
"free appropriate" public education for children with disabilities. The law
fostered mainstreaming by mandating that disabled children, when possible,
be taught in the "least restrictive environment. "

Despite its key role, Pennsylvania was slow to embrace inclusion until 2005,
when the state and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia received
court approval to settle a decade-old class-action case brought on behalf of
280,000 special-education students who demanded inclusion in regular
classrooms. Districts that aren't sufficiently inclusive risk losing

But even some advocates of inclusion say it isn't working as they had hoped.
Judith Gran, the plaintiffs' lead attorney on the case, says that some
districts aren't mainstreaming but "main-dumping" -- packing classes with
disabled children without adequate staffing. "You hear a lot about it from
teachers," she says. "They are the ones on the front lines, and they aren't
getting support."

The Scranton district has 9,800 students, 16% of whom are in special
education. About half have learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. Others
struggle with problems that include intellectual impairment, autism and
emotional disorders.


• The Issue: The trend of mainstreaming special-education students is
drawing increasing criticism, especially from teachers.

• Behind the Debate: Some parents and educators say students with
disabilities get better treatment in general classroom settings. But many
teachers lack training and support.

• The Bottom Line: Dissatisfaction with mainstreaming has become a factor
driving teacher turnover, a major problem in U.S. education.

Until 2004, most of these students were set apart in about 70
special-education classes. By last year, the system had eliminated most of
those classes, which generally had 15 students, a special-education teacher
and an aide. Last year, 75% of students with disabilities in the Scranton
School District spent 80% of their day or more in regular classrooms, up
from 28% in 2003.

The shift has sparked fierce opposition from the Scranton chapter of the
American Federation of Teachers, which has long been critical of
mainstreaming. The issue is expected to be an important part of negotiations
next year, when the teachers' contract expires. In a recent union survey of
Scranton's 750 teachers, two-thirds of those responding listed inclusion as
their No. 1 or No. 2 complaint, outranking all other concerns. (The survey
didn't ask about pay and benefits.)

"Inclusion doesn't work unless class sizes are greatly reduced," wrote one
teacher. "Children are suffering due to lack of support," wrote another. "We
need more help!" added a third.

Janet Strelecki, president of Whittier's Parent Teacher Association, says
she was inclined to favor inclusion because she runs a home for the
developmentally disabled. But when her own daughter, Miranda, who has no
special needs, was placed in Ms. McDermott's classroom last year, Ms.
Strelecki changed her mind. She says Miranda often felt frustrated because
she didn't get much attention from Ms. McDermott, whom she calls "a
wonderful teacher."

Ms. Strelecki says as many as 40 Whittier parents have complained about
inclusion. "The general consensus is that it doesn't work having all these
kids together," she says.

Some, however, praise inclusion. Sarene O'Malley says her dyslexic daughter
Jessica felt "ashamed" when she was in a separate special-education
classroom. Educators say that's a common sentiment among children with
learning disabilities. Through the inclusion program, Ms. O'Malley says
Jessica, who just graduated from Scranton High School, won new friends and
confidence and plans to go to college next year. "She never would have gone
on this path" without inclusion, Ms. O'Malley says.

Michael Sheridan, Scranton's school chief, says he sees only "pockets of
resistance" to inclusion. For evidence that the policy is working, Mr.
Sheridan cites the system's overall results. Last year, Standard & Poor's,
the bond-rating agency, listed Scranton as one of only 29 Pennsylvania
school systems that were "outperformers" in state tests of reading and math
proficiency for each of the preceding four years.

Mr. Sheridan says that President Bush's No Child Left Behind law requires
that all students take the same state tests and be instructed by a teacher
"highly qualified" in each subject. In his view, inclusion is the best way
to meet the demands of both No Child Left Behind and the federal
disabilities law.

Still, many teachers complain that they lack training and support. When
Scranton started the program three years ago, teachers say they received
about three days of training, primarily in "differentiated instruction, "
which often entails breaking up classes into several groups and using
different sets of materials for each. Administrators say principals often
provided more training, including sessions on autism and other disabilities.

Special-education instructors assist in regular classrooms and pull students
out for extra help, but there are few to go around. Scranton has 86
specially trained instructors, along with a support staff of 30 speech and
language experts, psychologists and others. Together, they must serve
roughly 1,600 special-education students in 18 schools.

Under the teachers' union contract, the district is supposed to place no
more than two disabled students in each classroom "where possible." But,
despite that wording, principals often use their discretion to place more
special-education students in certain classes.

Ann Langan, a ninth-grade teacher at Scranton High School, teaches a basic
science class. This year, she had 16 children in one class, 12 of whom were
in special education. Another of her classes had 20, 14 with disabilities.
Jennifer Zaleski, a fifth-grade teacher, had 16 students, half of whom were
in the special-education program. She says the IQs in her class range from
50 to 150. As far as understanding how to teach disabled children, she says,
"How much knowledge did I have? Probably zip."

Last October, the union filed a grievance with the school system, alleging a
violation at the high school of the teachers' contract. Administrators told
the union they would divide special-education students more evenly this

Few have struggled more with inclusion than Ms. McDermott, who teaches at
Whittier Elementary, a century-old red-brick building perched on a hillside
with views of downtown Scranton's faded storefronts and factories.

Ms. McDermott tries to maintain a bright, welcoming classroom, with shiny
laminated paper apples hanging on strings from the ceiling, a "birthday
train" marking each child's big day with a cake and a candle, and a picture
of Martin Luther King Jr. by the door.

The daughter of a fireman and a Scranton schools' secretary, Ms. McDermott
wanted to be a teacher since she was in kindergarten. In 1974, she graduated
from Penn State with a degree in elementary education, then worked as a
substitute teacher until she won her own classroom a decade later. "I ran to
work," says Ms. McDermott, now 54 years old. "I couldn't wait to get there.
I loved being in charge of this world of learning."

Whittier, which is housed in two buildings several blocks apart, has only
one special-education teacher -- and two aides -- for the entire school,
leaving Ms. McDermott largely on her own. Larry Miner, Whittier's principal,
says he tends to concentrate special-needs students in one classroom for
each grade to make it easier to schedule services. He acknowledges that Ms.
McDermott has an unusually large number. But to handle those children, he
says he looks for the most capable instructors. Ms. McDermott "is a very
gifted teacher," he says. "She is very patient."

From the start of this year, Ms. McDermott's biggest challenge was Andrea.
Along with Williams Syndrome, Andrea has sensory processing disorder, also
common among autistic children. The first-grader, who gets nourishment from
a feeding tube in her stomach, hit other children, screamed for hours,
pounded computer keyboards with her fists and tore up worksheets, according
to the teacher.

Mr. Miner says the school system offered to have her attend one of the
district's few separate classrooms for the severely disabled. Her parents,
Philip and Johanna Gavern, recall no such offer. Based on the report of a
private psychologist they hired, they believed that Andrea could make
academic progress in a mainstream classroom, as long as she had a full-time
aide trained in special education. They asked the school system for one, but
were refused.

Mr. Miner maintains that the approach wouldn't have made "much difference."
The school's special-education aides, he says, have only high-school
diplomas and scant disability training. Andrea did get full-time classroom
assistance from a local mental-health agency, paid for by the state. But
that aide has no education training and was present only to help Andrea stay
focused and perform basic tasks.

Andrea received 6½ hours of special services a week. These included speech
and language support and occupational therapy -- mostly in half-hour or
one-hour pullout sessions, according to Andrea's individualized education
program, or IEP, the legal document that outlines what the district must
provide. After school, Andrea's family privately arranged for her to spend
afternoons receiving a variety of physical, music and social-group

Ms. McDermott has no expertise in handling Williams Syndrome or any of the
other disorders she must manage each day. So she improvised, finding a
number board with tiles that engaged Andrea, and, with her own money, buying
kindergarten reading primers.

Soon after the start of the school year, Ms. McDermott started keeping a
journal, recording her time with Andrea to document what she considered an
intolerable situation.

Ms. McDermott wrote of Andrea touching and hitting other students -- albeit
gently, with a kind of slapping motion that didn't pose any threat. Andrea
also threw papers and tore up assignments.

Her behavior could be unpredictable and unnerving. "At story-time, Andrea
turned to children next to her on either side and was making forceful
spitting sounds into their ears," she wrote in an entry for Aug. 31.

"I can't listen because of Andrea," Shaun Hopkins, 6, a general education
student, said recently.

Andrea, who can be quick to smile and laugh and wears a neat part in her
short blonde hair, loves computers and, at home, enjoys listening on
headphones to the Lion King and other Disney movies. But, even when happily
ensconced on a terminal in the back of the classroom, she could grow
frustrated. On Sept. 7, she banged the keyboard with her fists, took off her
headset and threw it down on the keys. Her aide from the mental-health
agency took her out of the room.

On Sept. 27, Andrea, who had been moaning quietly, launched into a
full-throated scream, which lasted from 1:25 p.m. to 2:15 p.m., according to
a journal entry. Ms. McDermott didn't know why. Andrea's aide moved her into
the hall and then to a room in the basement, though the class could still
hear muffled cries, the teacher says.

The school called her mother to take her home. Ms. McDermott says she still
remembers Ms. Gavern picking up her screaming child and carrying her, legs
dangling, past other parents gathered for pickup. Ms. McDermott says she
later learned that Andrea was feeling pain from her feeding tube.

Through December or January, Ms. Gavern says she would have to pull Andrea
out of school and take her home once or twice a week, usually in the late
morning. Ms. Gavern used to work as a property manager for the rental units
she owns with her husband, a real-estate agent. The couple had to hire
others to do her job, so she would be available to pick up Andrea. "I
couldn't do anything because I was waiting by the phone," Ms. Gavern says.

Tensions grew between teacher and parent. Ms. Gavern says she became
convinced that Ms. McDermott didn't want Andrea in her class and, at a fall
IEP meeting, expressed her concerns.

"I don't think she has the knowledge," Ms. Gavern says of Ms. McDermott. "I
don't think she has the support. It's not entirely her fault. She was
overwhelmed. The school system was not there to back her up. I blame them,

Ms. McDermott says she agrees with that assessment, adding that "the system
was not set up for children like Andrea."

On May 3, Ms. McDermott planned an art project painting flower pots for
Mother's Day. "Oh, no! Oh, no!" Andrea shouted, stamping her feet and waving
her arms, before being led out of the room. Andrea had wanted to spend more
time on the computer.

With the art assignment finished, Andrea, dressed in an embroidered blouse,
a pressed khaki skirt and pink sneakers, returned to her place in the back
of the classroom, where she sat next to her mental-health aide. The two
worked on their own, while the class did a reading lesson.

"Do you know six minus three?" her aide asked. "No!" Andrea replied. With
the help of her attendant, Andrea copied the numbers 16, 19 and 20 from a
workbook. "Very nice 20," her aide said.

Later, Andrea briefly rejoined the class. Andrea raised her hand,
volunteering to read a book out loud in front of the class. "All fall down,"
Andrea read, clearly, though from a book simpler than those of her
classmates. "Good job!" Ms. McDermott told her.

Despite such glimmers of hope, the Gaverns have given up on Scranton. This
month, due to their dissatisfaction with Andrea's school, they sold their
house and moved to nearby Clarks Summit. The family had heard positive
reports from other parents about the school system, which may put Andrea in
a separate class for at least part of the day.

"It just hasn't worked out at all," says Mr. Gavern, surrounded by packing
boxes. "Inclusion sounds great on paper. But the [Scranton] school system
isn't prepared."

With the school year just over, Ms. McDermott says she feels tremendous
relief, and the migraine headaches that once afflicted her almost weekly
have disappeared. But she is still struggling with her own future. Ms.
McDermott has decided to stay through the end of next year -- her 31st as a
teacher -- when she can quit with full health benefits and start a new

"It's the end," Ms. McDermott says. "I don't have it in me any more. I used
to think I'd stay forever until they kicked me out. It's sad. It's too sad."

Write to John Hechinger at john.hechinger@ wsj.com3

Anonymous said...

I agree with ohiopolitical , parents shouldn't have the option to send thier children where they want to. It's the States responsibility to educate the child. Only the wealthy should be able to send thier children to a school of thier choice. Government schools provide a good enough education for everyone . Besides Strickland owes the teachers unions this one. He should be thankful to us for getting him elected.

Scott Piepho said...

Cute, Dave. I hope everyone else knows sarcasm when they see it.

Scott Piepho said...


Blogger apparently ate the comment I wrote. My basic point is that the purveyors of the special ed scholarship scheme are less interested in providing alternatives than in sticking the Trojan horse's nose under the tent. This was a bad, overbroad proposal that would have paid wealthy people to do something they are already doing.

I appreciate the story, which is heartrending. But I doubt that any private providers are out there willing to take on the Andreas of the world for $20K/year.