The real questions: special education

In a series of posts responding to a list of questions contributed by a member of our community who served six years on the school board and suggests that current candidates for that office should spend less time talking about matters in which they are powerless to act and more time discussing issues we must address.

1. Special education: Cost is 4x that of a regular education, and if evaluated by parents, my bet is that most Caledonia parents would say they are not satisfied.

A teacher who asked not to be named sent me this statement of their experience:

I’m assuming the question here is, “Why aren’t parents satisfied with Caledonia’s Special Education Programs?”

Our Special Education teachers are amazing here in Caledonia, the issue is that while our program has greatly grown, our staff hasn’t. Our staff has had their caseloads grow tremendously with no other support added. On top of that, their responsibilities have increased. This makes it impossible to provide a satisfactory service without sacrificing many hours away from their own families.

My personal experience was very tough. I began my career as a Special Education Teacher. My first job was in Caledonia at the High School as a Resource Room teacher. During my three and a half years as a special education teacher my role was constantly more demanding, ever changing, and never gaining more support. I would work 6am-4 or 5pm… the cleaning staff would tell me to go home on Fridays. When I starting having kids, I had to choose to leave Special Education in order to be able to spend time with my family. I had asked for more support so I didn’t have to make that tough decision, however it was not possible. I now teach general education and the demands are extremely different (with the same pay might I add). Parents of students in the Special Education program are understandably upset because these teachers are being put in impossible scenarios to give each child an Individualized Education. They are required to provide this Individualized plan with very little resources. An example is even time during school. Often on my prep hour I would spend it reading tests for students, providing support during an emergency, or supporting a teacher. I then had to use time outside of school for paperwork or meetings or lesson planning. Another example is curriculum; I had to write my own curriculum over a summer and received zero compensation.

If you interviewed Caledonia’s Special Education teachers with the questions, “Are you fully staffed?”, “Do you have the resources you need?” and “Do you feel that you have enough time in your day to sufficiently complete all of your required duties?” I think your jaw would drop at the answers. It’s really unfortunate that in this very blessed and generous school district we are lacking support for our population with the highest needs.

I say all of this to try to bring some light to the lack of support that our Special Education Teachers receive, not financially but empathetically, with staff support, supplies, and understanding. Special Education Teachers are responsible for so much for one child and are put under many demands. They are often put in unsafe situations with zero too little follow up or support. Our Special Education Staff need more encouragement and support in order to serve their students sufficiently and increase parent satisfaction.

I’m not sure I need to add much. Do we not already see our work cut out for us just from reading this straightforward statement? This former special education teacher suggests: ask the teachers. If voters give me the opportunity to serve on school board, I intend to spend time every month doing just that: asking the teachers. And the parents. And when and as appropriate, the students. Listening well always has to be the first step. I would like to listen well before producing, or endorsing, concrete next steps.

But it does not seem right or good that a person who was committed to teaching in special education in Caledonia had to give it up because it was too time-consuming outside of school hours to allow for a normal family life.

So here is something that is already clear from the above statement: more resources, including more teachers, are needed. Of course more resources could be put to many good uses within CCS! The making of budgets is all about setting priorities because it is not possible to do everything we would like to do. But in my view, providing adequately for special education must be a very high priority.

That’s essentially my answer, so you can stop there if you like. If you want a little more of how I think about this question, read on.

I don’t know why Kristy Sherlund put this question first in her list, but I’m glad she did, because it provides an opening for me to pose another question that gets to the heart of the idea of a public school system: if I am not a parent with a special-needs child, why should I be willing to pay higher taxes to support the provision of excellent special-needs education in Caledonia?

For myself, here are some of my personal answers to that question:

  • Because I am thankful for the aptitudes and abilities with which I was gifted, and those with which my children were gifted, and I am very well aware that neither I nor they did anything at all to deserve those giftings. They came to us as gifts. The only fitting response is gratitude. And the proper fruit of gratitude is giving in turn to others.
  • Because I am not a self-sufficient island, and I have never been left on my own, with no support from others, to cope as best I may with difficulties that have befallen me. Rather, I am a citizen of a nation created by its people to “promote the general welfare,” which means to pool resources in order to accomplish things that benefit us all as a community.
  • Because I follow a teacher who when asked what is the greatest of all the commandments did not stop with answering, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart” but went on, unbidden, to add—as if to say that it is not possible to obey that first commandment by focusing only on that first commandment—that the second greatest commandment is, “Love your neighbor as yourself”; and whose own further teaching included this: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I say these are my personal answers because two of them, as you may have noticed, are grounded in my Christian faith. I know that some of my fellow citizens in Caledonia are also Christian, so I commend my answers to them for their prayerful consideration. I also know that some of my fellow citizens are not Christian but are deeply principled people, perhaps deriving their ethics from another religion, or perhaps from deep intuition of human values; they may recognize that their own moral system says something very similar to them.

I do not believe that our government can or should ground its official acts in Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish, or Buddhist) teaching, but I believe that individual citizens must act in ways that honor the values they profess, which means (for example) that citizens who are Christian should not claim that the government can or should be Christian, especially not while simultaneously fighting to insure that the government acts in unforgiving, ungenerous, even oppressive ways.

Rather, Christians (and adherents of other religions and value systems which cannot become official government ideology) can and must urge the government, on grounds found in our Constitution and laws, to act in particular issues in ways that express generosity rather than selfishness; that promote the common good of all over the right of each individual to amass wealth without limits without regard to the rights and needs of others; that recognize that much is required of those to whom much has been given; and that recognize that to be human means essentially to be willing to suppress selfishness and seek to live generously.

The middle of my three “personal” answers therefore quotes the preamble to the Constitution of the United States to the effect that one of the three main purposes and justifications of a government is to “promote the general welfare.” I welcome that provision because of my religious and moral commitments, but whether you and I have such commitments or not, it is a foundational element of the US Constitution. And it does not take much imagination to see how a direct line runs from “we covenant together to promote the common good” through “so we are going to have free public schools” to “and within those schools we are going to provide for the education of children who have special needs.”

If you still are not tired of reading, I will now take a slightly different tack, and run the risk of introducing a term that tends to provoke both strongly positive and strongly negative emotional reactions: my personal ethic is essentially pro-life. I must add quickly that I have come to see over the last couple of decades how that term has been exploited, manipulated, and misapplied in ways that render it noxious to many of us. I cannot sign on to the political program pressed by some people who claim the pro-life label, interpreting it to mean criminalizing abortion as comprehensively as possible. I will just say that for me, pro-life, in the “seamless garment” interpretation that seems to me to be the most consistent Christian understanding, entails the following:

  • When people are old and incapacitated, we do not euthanize them but care for them until they die naturally.
  • When people have committed crimes, we do not kill them but restrain them while doing everything possible to restore their broken humanity.
  • When people are poor, we do not lock them into debtors’ prisons or abandon them to despair but provide pathways out of poverty to independent thriving.
  • When people are depressed or otherwise mentally ill, we do not abandon them to self-harm and suicide, or lock them into oppressive institutions to make them invisible, but seek to help them get well.
  • When women are pregnant and not in a position to bear and support children, we seek to support them well enough that they will be willing and able to bear their children and either keep them as their own or give them to others who will raise them.
  • When children have no parents, we provide ways for others to foster or adopt them.

And finally, to return to the point where this post started:

  • When children have cognitive, physical, and emotional disabilities that prevent their learning in the same ways as most other children, we do not ignore them; we do not abandon their parents to cope as best they can with their own personal, private resources; and we do not assume that nongovernmental organizations dependent on voluntary charitable giving will provide all that is needed. Rather, we spread the burden of providing for their education across the whole of our society by providing the needed educational resources within our general commitment to free public education for all our children.

I am afraid that in our current political environment, we have people wanting to steer our government at all levels in ways that reject the idea that government exists not only to provide police and defense functions but also, and quite fundamentally, to “promote the common welfare” in many other ways. I think that if some of them could go back in time to the moment when our Constitution was drafted, they would advise Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the others that “promote the common welfare” is socialism. But the proper name for what happens when people consent to collaborate and pool resources for promotion of the common good is not socialism. It is civilization. Let’s be citizens, and civilized, civil, human, humane, and good. Let’s agree together that we will take good care of our special-needs children.



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