Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Goldwater Institute: Two Million Minds are a Terrible Thing to Waste

Hearing on minorities and special education raises concerns about 'mislabeling'

By Matthew Ladner, Ph.D.

I recently testified on minority overrepresentation in special education before the United States Civil Rights Commission. Education Week reported that the hearing "expanded into a three-hour discussion that touched on parental choice, school officials' judgment calls on special education placements, and effective early-childhood education."

It's not often that the Goldwater Institute, the NAACP, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund are all in agreement. All panelists broadly agreed that the mild mental retardation, emotionally disturbed and specific learning disability labels can and have been badly abused.

The Commissioners asked a number of perceptive questions including, how are the failures of general and special education related? The answer is, intimately. Dr. Reid Lyon, the former chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch at the National Institute of Health, estimates that 2 million special education children are currently mislabeled due to poor early reading instruction. Dr. Daniel J. Reschly, education and psychology professor at Vanderbilt University, testified that "reading is implicated as the first or second reason for 80 percent of special education placements."

The Goldwater Institute has called for Arizona to implement two of the reforms discussed during the hearings. First, voluntary universal reading skill screening and remediation: test all children early and remediate those that are behind. This method could help accurately identify which students actually have physical or neurological conditions appropriate for special education. Second, to combat perverse incentives and improve outcomes, implement a system of parental choice for children with disabilities.

The legislature and Governor accomplished the latter in 2006. This should be followed by decisive action on screening and remediation in 2008. With both of these reforms in place, Arizonans will have done more than any other state to avoid horrible stories like Magdalena's. It's time to put an end to these costly mistakes that can ruin a child's education.

Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute.

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