Not many years ago, Dexter, a 10-year-old mute paraplegic in Indianola, Miss., or 7-year-old John from Greenwich, Conn., confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, might have been kept in institutions or left to languish at home in front of the TV. School was an impossible dream for many such children.
John, Dexter and the nation's 4.3 million other handicapped youngsters have been rescued from isolation, ignorance and hopelessness, thanks largely to the 1975 federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which entitles them to "a free, appropriate education."
Meanwhile, the enterprise known as special education has developed from a $5-billion program in 1977 to a $20 billion-a-year system. For the one child in nine who gets such services, it has produced "a sea change," in the words of Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who rarely gives such high praise to the public schools.
"We've set the world's standard in special education," he said.
But when reporters visited 102 schools in 15 states over the last year, they found a darker side, a system troubled by confusion, inequity and checkered results largely overlooked by the reports that have called for education reform over the last five years.
Slow Learners Included
The critics say that special education has become a dumping ground for slow learners who have no real handicaps. Special-education teachers themselves are challenging the methods used to identify and instruct handicapped students. Many view the special education label itself as a handicap, and there are hints of backlash over the costs of the special services.
Among the problems:
Untold thousands of underachieving or hard-to-teach children are in classes for the handicapped, classified as learning disabled, a poorly understood term with perhaps 50 different definitions. These children are placed in special-education classes simply because the schools lack workable alternatives.
At P.S. 146 in the impoverished East Harlem section of New York City, special-education supervisor Charles Evans conceded that some of the 11 youngsters who spend all day in Judi Gimpelson's class for the mildly handicapped could be taught in regular classrooms.
Regular classes are overcrowded, so special education is the only place problem youngsters can get extra help, Evans explained.
Some critics say that pupils with less clear-cut handicaps lose more than they gain in such settings. Others are suspicious of the motives of the teachers who send them there.
Problem Pupils Banished
Some have been banished from regular classes "because they were a pain in the butt, or because they didn't please the teacher in some other way. They didn't follow directions," said Stillman Wood, special-education director in Olympia, Wash.
Almost 5% of the nation's 39 million schoolchildren are classified as learning disabled. No one really knows how many of them are genuinely handicapped, but some experts estimate that perhaps two-thirds of them may merely be slow learners.
- Easy to enter, tough to leave.
Once a teacher decides a youngster needs special education, the placement is virtually inevitable.
A University of Minnesota professor of educational psychology, James Ysseldyke, found in a 1983 study that almost 75% of the 3% to 6% of the school population referred each year for testing is found eligible for special education.
"It is clear that the most important decision made in the entire assessment process is the decision by a regular classroom teacher to refer a student for assessment," Ysseldyke said.
For the overwhelming majority of these children, the door swings only one way: out of regular classrooms and into a world where the pace is usually slow and expectations low.
Many Enter, Few Return
A recent study by the Council of Great City Schools estimated that less than one-fifth of students placed in special education ever return to full-time, regular classes. Only 2% of New York City's 116,000 special-education pupils return each year.
- Race and sex inequities.
Blacks are 16% of the public school population, but they make up 37% of the students who are labeled retarded, according to U.S. Office of Civil Rights statistics. Boys outnumber girls in classes for the emotionally disturbed, by as much as 9 to 1.
The disproportionate number of minorities can be traced, in large part, to the use of IQ tests, which have been criticized as culturally biased. Lawsuits in Georgia and California forced those states to end their reliance on such tests for special-education placement.
Why so many boys?
"We don't know. You have to ask God that," said Robin Perencevic, head teacher at Arevalos School for autistic children in Huntington Beach, Calif.
- Uneven state standards.
Associated Press correspondents visited schools in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Virginia and Washington. They and the other states differ widely on which children are to be considered handicapped.
Hawaii, for example, has 7.3% of its pupils in special education; Massachusetts has 16.8%.
Children considered emotionally disturbed in Delaware or Utah, where that handicap is broadly defined, could find themselves instantly cured if they moved to Mississippi or Arkansas, where definitions are more narrow.
- Haphazard, understaffed monitoring.
The Education for All Handicapped Children Act established an elaborate system of state and federal monitoring to ensure compliance, but the latest report to Congress faulted the monitoring of all 18 states visited by federal inspectors.
The states, in turn, have bristled at the quality and tone of federal monitoring reports.
In a confidential reply to a 1986 federal review of California's special-education programs, acting special-education director Shirley A. Thornton asserted that federal monitors "failed to provide any supportable facts" to back their findings, which included shoddy supervision and record-keeping.
"Four (federal) teams of four investigators monitoring 18 states a year? That's absurd," said Martin Gerry of the Fund for Access to Society, a nonprofit organization that works with parent organizations and state education agencies. "That's not one-quarter the number of people they need to do the job."
Madeleine Will, assistant U.S. secretary of education in charge of the $3-billion programs for services to the handicapped, acknowledged that it has taken time to develop a monitoring system "from scratch," but she insisted: "The monitoring teams have done a very good job of identifying weaknesses in the state systems."
- Spending backlash.
Steep expenses have disturbed some educators, who fear that special education is growing at the expense of regular school programs.
Annual costs typically are double the average amount ($4,000) spent on each child in the regular system. For severely disturbed children in private treatment centers, they can be as high as $150,000 a year.
"Many of the advocates of the handicapped causes have gotten arrogant about it," said Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Assn. of Secondary School Principals. "It's a dog-in-the-manger attitude: 'We want ours first. Everybody else comes second.' "
- Segregation and stigma.
Educators worry about labeling children "handicapped" and separating them in special classes.
"Sometimes when labels get on, they get stuck and it's hard to pull them off," said Warren Kenton, principal of De Lake and Taft elementary schools in Lincoln City, Ore.
At Louie Welch Middle School in Houston, a sixth-grader talked frankly about why he wound up in a "behavior intervention class," then asked worriedly: "Are you going to put my last name down? I don't want anybody to know I'm in special ed."
Kathy Pisacane, whose course for the learning disabled at Ridgewood High School in New Jersey tackles Shakespeare and other literature, said that for months, her pupils insisted that the classroom door be shut "because they didn't want to be seen by passers-by."
The labels can even stick to teachers.
Teachers Labeled, Too
In some schools, "when you go to PTA meetings, nobody wants to be seen talking to you," said special education teacher Ivy Chan of Garfield Elementary School in Olympia, Wash. "I'm labeled."
Beyond all these difficulties, handicapped students will face a forbidding adult world when they turn 22 and are no longer entitled to public schooling. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has estimated that 50% to 70% of all handicapped adults are unemployed.
Professors at the University of Vermont followed what happened to 301 special-education students who left Vermont high schools between 1979 and 1983. They found that 62% of those who had split their school day between regular classes and special-education rooms were employed, but just 36% of the full-time special-education students were able to get jobs.
And the realities of the workaday world can thwart the best of intentions.
At a hectic shopping mall cafeteria in Jackson, Miss., a 20-year-old deaf, blind and retarded student named Andre was being trained to fold the napkins around the silverware. At Andre's agonizingly slow pace--one napkin every three minutes--restaurant manager Brad House said he would need a full-time coach.
Andre eventually went to a state-subsidized job.
Some Are Unemployable
"An honest question should be asked about outcomes," said Thomson, head of the principals' group. "We are not going to make every special-education kid an employable person. It's just not going to happen."
Although not every child can be guaranteed a bright future, computers and other teaching tools have penetrated communications barriers and opened opportunities for the severely disabled.
"Students we felt would be in 24-hour care are now learning to take care of themselves," said Marilyn Armstrong, a Los Angeles County administrator. "It's made us all question the expectations we had for these students in the past."
Among those who are fighting the odds is 11-year-old David Legler of St. David, Ariz. He was shot in the head while hunting rabbits last year and suffered partial paralysis and speech impairment. Six months after the accident, he was back in regular classes with speech and physical therapy added to his schedule.
Nathan Boyes, 6, of Salem, Ore., deafened by illness as an infant, spent three years in intensive training at Salem Heights Elementary School before he started first grade last month--in a regular classroom but with the help of an interpreter.
"I never imagined public school would be so accepting and so normal," said his mother, Audrey Boyes.