Few would question the value of education. It is the bedrock of our democracy and at the very heart of our economic systems. “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty,” opined Thomas Jefferson, more than 250 years ago. Education is a fundamental right, one that is afforded to all children under federal law and our United States Constitution.
For children with disabilities, the right to an education has been evolving slowly. Now fully guaranteed by laws such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and Supreme Court decisions like Bd. of Ed. v. Rowley and Endrew F. v. Douglas County, it has not always been so.
Last month, the Richmond Times Dispatch ran a disturbing editorial that suggested that the cost of educating children with autism was out of control. The author of the editorial, newly-hired James Bacon, wistfully recalled the good old days when children with disabilities could be institutionalized. Educating children with autism, Mr. Bacon argued, detracted from the education of other students. That view struck terror in the hearts of all families, friends and advocates for children with disabilities, as it understandably should have.
After decades of struggle, it is now well established law that students with disabilities are entitled to a meaningful education. Beyond the basic right to education that all students are afforded, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that students with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment. In short, students with disabilities must be educated alongside their non-disabled peers to the extent possible. Congress saw such value in the concept of inclusive education that they created a specific mandate requiring it.
Mr. Bacon and the Times Dispatch seemed to suggest that this mandate is an act of charity, and one that we can no longer afford. That view misunderstands the value of inclusive education for all children. Clearly, there is little value in educating children surrounded by only those who are exactly like them. To do so would poorly equip them to live in an increasingly diverse world. As adults, we interact daily with others who have various strengths and needs. Inclusive education prepares all students for the diverse interactions they will have throughout their lives.
Students with autism or other disabilities can and do disrupt classrooms at times, as do children who are experiencing trauma, or who face language barriers, or who are simply going through hormonal changes, or countless other situations. The key to quality education is not to segregate out everyone who is different, but rather to invest in our schools to ensure that teachers and counselors have the tools and skills to redirect disruptive behavior in the classroom — and to respond to behaviors in a manner that improves the quality of education for all students.
Demonstrating skills and techniques to respond to distressed children, to diffuse potential conflicts, and to redirect disruptive behaviors does not detract from valuable education. Indeed, those skills may be some of the most valuable education a child can acquire. That valuable education begins with the skills and resources we invest in our teachers and schools.
It is important to know that, under Federal law, cost is not a factor when determining appropriate supports and services to ensure a student’s individual educational needs are met. This makes sense. The cost of public education ought not be determined by establishing a baseline for educating only the most docile or the smartest children. Public education is for all children, regardless of their starting point. Special education spending, as all educational spending, is an investment, not an expenditure. There is ample evidence that students who receive early intervention and special education services are better able to support themselves and give back to their community as they enter adulthood. Investing in inclusion prevents the need for more costly supports in later years.
At the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, we have seen countless examples of this. Children with disabilities – yes, even those with autism! – who, with proper supports in public education, become productive and interesting adults, excelling at sports, law, social work, business and politics. Once considered disruptive, our brothers and sisters with challenging disabilities often grow into trusted neighbors, colleagues and friends.
The response from the community to the misguided editorial was swift and strong. We were pleased to see that the Times Dispatch printed an apology within a few days of that editorial. We were likewise pleased to learn that Mr. Bacon’s short tenure on the editorial board came to an abrupt end. The newspaper promised further dialogue with the disability community, which we welcome. For the good of the Commonwealth, we should not be looking for ways to cut costs in education, and certainly should not be doing so at the expense of children with disabilities. Rather, we must ensure that valuable and useful education for all children is fully supported throughout the state.