Thursday, July 12, 2007
In response to both Rob and Rick, let me start by conceding that this topic taps into a couple of my personally most deeply-felt frustrations over unfairnesses in the world that I just have no idea how to address. So I'm not sure I'm an especially good debate partner on this -- I'm not very objective and I haven't yet figured out for myself what I think the solutions might be.
My post conflated two different sources of that frustration. First is the unfairness of the inequities in our public school systems. Kids with special needs just bear the heaviest brunt of that unfairness. IDEA is one of the largest unfunded mandates that the federal government has ever imposed. When IDEA was passed in 1975 it was supposed to be funded 40% by the federal government. I think the highest amount of federal funding that it's ever gotten was 20%, and it's a struggle every year to get even that much. That leaves local school districts with special ed budgets that are growing every year. The inner-city schools that have the fewest resources generally obviously have the fewest resources for their kids with special needs, too. And their parents have the fewest alternatives for placing their kids in more appropriate settings, because private schools are NOT obliged to take kids with special needs; IDEA doesn't apply to them.
The kids with special needs living in really poor, urban school districts are burdened with the consequences of their poverty in a particulary dramatic way, because they really have no options. Their parents don't have the luxury of moving to suburban districts with more generous programs. The private schools that might provide scholarships to some lower-income kids don't have to take kids with special needs.
Which brings me to my second sources of frustration -- the unwillingness of most Catholic schools in my experience (and based on truly LOTS of anectodal evidence over the years from other parents) to voluntarily take students of kids with special needs. I actually incline more toward agreeing with Rick than Rob about the importance of Catholic schools, but not so much for what they do or do not do to immerse our own kids into a vibrant faith life from an early age, but rather in the (maybe naive) notion that Catholic schools might provide a great alternative to public schools in the poorer school districts. But they typically seem to choose NOT to embrace as part of their mission or community kids with special needs. And, no, Rob, I really don't think this is simply a question of resources -- it's so much more a question of will, imagination, and flexibility. School funding & special ed is really complicated & varies in different states, but in both the states where I have lived with a kid with special needs -- Indiana and Minnesota -- the school district continues to provide services like therapies & things, even to the kids in Catholic schools - you just have to find a way to transport the child to the public school facility to get those services. But if your Catholic school doesn't signal a willingness to reach out and engage in some dialogue about what accommodating your child might really entail, you'll never get a chance to explore those possibilities.
The refusal of a local parish to even seriously consider educating a child with special needs feels like a particular betrayal to Catholic parents with such kids. I never even tried to enroll my son with special needs in a local Catholic school, but I did experience that rejection (and the real feeling of betrayal that accompanied it) and a couple of different parishes in just trying to enroll him in the religious education programs. As a Catholic parent, you just assume that the one place you're not going to have to fight for your child is going to be your church. It really hits you hard in the gut when you realize you're going to have to have the same sorts of meetings with your parish priest that you've had with your local public school principals, just to remind them that your kids are just as much members of the parish, and thus the responsibility of the community, as all the other kids. It's enough to cause many parents to leave the Catholic church. The Protestant churches seem to be much better at really reaching out to people with disabilities than the Catholic church. I will admit to feeling my first-ever pangs of curiosity about whether I could leave my parish when I visited a Protestant mega-church in the area a few months ago, and on the racks in back of the church saw a glossy brochure about all the programs for people with disability offered by that Congregation.