Special Attention For A Special Need

By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press

Grasping the emotionally charged subject of special needs, to most, is as amorphous as the study of autism. In the 1988 movie “Rain Man,” staring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, we were sensitized to the plight of Raymond, an autistic savant, and his obsession with the routine.

“Gotta get my boxer shorts at K-Mart,” Raymond, played by Hoffman, tells his yuppie brother Charlie Babbitt, played by Tom Cruise.

“What difference does it make where you buy underwear,” Charlie protests. “Underwear is underwear…whether you buy it in Cincinnati or wherever!”

“Boxer shorts. K-Mart!” Raymond insists.

“I’m gonna let ya’ in on a little secret, Ray. K-Mart sucks,” Charlie rails.

What is happening to the funding of special needs education throughout the nation and in Massachusetts (ranked tops in the country) is worthy of a Charlie Babbitt invective. “The cost of educating special needs children in Massachusetts public schools has increased by more than $400 million since 2001 and totaled $1.6 billion for fiscal 2004, the latest year for which a total is available, or roughly one-fifth of school spending,” Peter Schworm reported in the Sunday Boston Globe. Special needs students, he wrote, presently make up 16.3 percent of total enrollment.

Meanwhile, state appropriations to keep pace with the swell are detoured in discussions of conflicting agendas—a diversion that also is placing great pressure on the general academic programs of schools throughout the state. A case in point is the Nauset Regional School District on Cape Cod. High-achieving Nauset High School and Middle School are ranked among the ten highest in the state in MCAS scores, and the district’s elementary schools are in the top 15 percent. At Nauset, special needs budgets are increasing annually at a rate of ten to 20 percent, while general academic programs are held to annual increases of three percent or less, barely covering the cost of inflation and diminishing the quality of general academic programs.

Education today should not be a Hobson’s choice; both programs need suitable funding. Toward that end, school superintendents met last week with top lawmakers to seek changes to the state funding law for special education—an adjustment that should be a top priority of the new Deval Patrick Administration and the Democratic-controlled legislature.

‘This nation is founded on the premise that every individual matters,” says Nauset Superintendent Michael Gradone. “And that’s what special education is all about.”

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