Michigan desperately needs to tackle its special-education problem, which is becoming a pressing issue as more youngsters are designated as needing special-education services.

In the 1990s, the number of Michigan citizens served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal special-education program, increased more than 27 percent, from nearly 167,000 in 1990-91 to more than 213,000 in 1999-2000. Currently, more than 12 percent of Michigan’s youths ages 0 to 21 are enrolled in IDEA.

Why have the numbers of special-education students skyrocketed? Nationwide, the numbers of children who are autistic, have speech impairments, are deaf or blind, or have other physical or emotional disabilities have remained fairly constant since the mid-1970s, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

The rise of those with “specific learning disabilities” has contributed the most to the increasing special-education population. In 1976-77, there were fewer than 800,000 IDEA children categorized with such disabilities nationwide, a number that nearly doubled by 1980-81, making it the largest single IDEA category that year. Over the ensuing 20 years, more and more children have been diagnosed with learning disabilities, until today more than 45 percent of all IDEA students are so designated.

Some argue that this increase is the product of a greater understanding of what constitutes a learning disability over the past several years. Others say that the “learning disability” label is being used as a catch-all for students who are not performing well in school by the time they reach the mid-elementary grades or higher.

Lisa Snell of the Los Angeles-based Reason Public Policy Institute points out that the label may indeed be grossly overused because the criteria for determining severe learning disability (SLD) leave so much room for interpretation. She writes, “An SLD diagnosis remains subjective. In addition to the federal standard, there are 50 different state definitions of learning disability.”

Evidence of rampant subjective diagnosis is abundant. Last year, a report by the President’s Commission on Special Education estimated that some 80 percent of students assigned to special-education programs as a result of a severe learning disability were assigned “simply because they haven’t learned how to read.” The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 2001 concluded that there is no way to distinguish between a child diagnosed with a severe learning disability and one who simply has low reading achievement.

According to Andrew J. Coulson, senior fellow in education policy with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, “SLD diagnosis is often reduced to a devastatingly simple formula: If a child is smart but cannot read or do math, he is disabled.” Coupled with the fact that with the IDEA program comes federal money, this gives school districts a strong incentive to classify more students as being learning disabled.

Clearly, hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions of children in America legitimately need special-education services because they do have severe learning disabilities. However, this problem may have a simple solution. If children who start falling behind in reading are provided remedial education instead of special education, their academic problems may be mitigated if not completely alleviated.

Reading expert Reid Lyon and his colleagues echo this sentiment when they write, “[If] more aggressive attempts are made to teach all children to read, the meaning of disability could change in the future. In this scenario, the actual diagnosis of learning disability could be reserved for children whose reading or other academic problems are severe and intractable.”

All children who do not know basic phonics or lack other early reading skills by mid-way through the first grade, as determined by an achievement test, should be given additional help with their reading. Intervention at an early age could help avoid costly special education later. According to the Michigan Department of Education, the typical special-education student costs the state between two- and eight-times as much as the statewide average cost of a non-special education student.

In this way, education could be focused on learning basic subjects early, mitigating the need for either special-education or remedial-education services later. If school districts can focus on educating their students, rather than putting a label on them, all children would have the opportunity for a quality education.


(Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D. is the Weinberg Fellow in statistical policy research at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation, and former director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. More information on education issues is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.)


The sharp rise in the number of children labeled “learning disabled” is stirring suspicion among some education experts that the label is being used to obtain more federal special education money, and as an excuse for large numbers of students who don’t do well in school. Instead of looking for excuses, Michigan educators should focus on getting kids reading early.

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