Star Tribune editor: Our special education focus

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 27, 2013 - 10:12 PM

It’s not to question the need, but to shine light on a changing landscape.

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For some time, we have been researching trends in special education, noticing that even though state school districts kept raising levies, they are always tight on cash. One reason: The dramatic rise in the numbers of special-education students in public schools, and the increasing complexity of their needs.

As we reported in March, the number of disabled students has increased 14 percent over the last decade, even as the overall school population has declined. Many of these students have intense physiological or psychological challenges that demand expensive treatments.

In the wake of that first story, the outcry from the parents of some special-education students was almost primal.

How dare we question the costs to educate their children, they said to me. Many told painful stories of how their children had been undiagnosed and were set back years in their education because teachers didn’t understand their needs.

Didn’t I understand that dollars spent in the earlier years helps special-education children adapt, and that it prevents more expensive problems later? So what if schools have to give up music lessons. Parents of healthy children can pick up those costs on their own, just as the parents of special-education children have many ­unreimbursed expenses.

I want to be very clear: Our reporting is not intended to question the right of all children to an education. Nor do we underestimate that many children have intense needs. And of course helping a child now prevents expensive problems down the road. As a mother of three, I empathize with the enormous weight of responsibility a parent feels to make sure his or her child develops to his fullest potential, regardless of any disabilities.

Our intent in that story, as well as today’s story, is to shine a light on one of the toughest dilemmas facing educators today and to help readers understand the financial and ethical pressures forcing schools to make very tough choices. This will be an area of special inquiry for us this year.

One of the first areas of focus was the rising costs of special education. Taxpayers need to understand the demands on their dollars, and why the bill for education keeps rising. As we have reported, state spending on special education jumped by nearly $2 billion in the last decade and continues to escalate, forcing cuts elsewhere. Pointing that out, and examining the underlying reasons for the expenses, shouldn’t be equated with suggesting that this is a waste of taxpayers’ dollars.

Money is a finite resource. It is important to explore whether educational dollars are being spent on solutions that have documented successes. For example, controversy surrounds various forms of treatment for autism, some far more expensive than others. This is an important question given the dramatic rise of the number of autistic children in public schools.

Of course, the questions special education poses extend far beyond money. One of the surprises in our reporting was discovering how many children with extreme psychological problems are now in public schools, as community mental-health systems that once might have helped treat them have eroded.

We are committed to telling the stories of these students and their parents as well. We have sought out students and parents and asked them to share the challenges they have faced finding schools or teachers who had the training or patience to deal with their child’s complex issues. We talked to parents who spent years trying to find the right setting for their child, or who were horrified at the treatment their child did receive.

Today’s story focuses on the fact that Minnesota is more regressive than a number of other states in some techniques it uses to discipline students who have trouble containing their emotions or their behavior. Our reporting suggests that the use of seclusion and forceful holds such as prone restraint are overused.

It raises tough questions such as: How often should a child be sent into seclusion, and might this cause more psychological damage? The U.S. Education Department has declared that prone restraint should be banned from public schools; Minnesota wants two more years before it phases it out.

This is not a black-and-white issue, either. As more-challenging students enter the school system, some teachers fear for their own safety, and they want disciplinary techniques that they believe will protect them. How do you balance the rights of the children with the rights of the teachers? That’s an area we’ll explore more fully in a later story.

We hope that when we are done reporting on special education, our readers will have a clearer understanding of why so many more students with special needs are entering the school system, whether Minnesota is fulfilling its responsibility to educate them, and whether school districts are making the best financial decisions possible.

It’s an issue of enormous consequence to taxpayers, our public schools, our children, and their futures.

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Nancy Barnes is the Star Tribune's editor and senior vice president for news. Follow her on Twitter @nancycbarnes.

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