- The Washington Times - Monday, July 8, 2002

DALLAS, Va. — By the time students in Norfolk see special-education teacher Charlene Christopher, they're usually in fourth grade, and most haven't learned to read well.
Those are two of the problems inherent in the nation's special-education programs, according to a report requested by President Bush that is to be released this week.
The report recommends that schools help young students before they need expensive special services. The current system, it says, "uses an antiquated model that waits for a child to fail."
The report also says more emphasis must be placed on reading. It doesn't answer advocates' calls for guaranteed funding of special-education programs, worrying educators who say public schools need millions more in funding each year for new teachers, better training and equipment.
Miss Christopher said smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade are important to keeping students out of special education.
"That will help a lot of the kids, because, unfortunately, by fourth grade, that's where I see them," the special-education teacher said. "The primary concern at that age is reading."
The report also said paperwork should be reduced and that schools should be allowed more flexibility on how they spend their special-education money.
Special-education programs serve about 6 million students with a variety of disabilities, including mental retardation, blindness, hearing impairments, autism, emotional disturbances, dyslexia or other conditions.
The report is the last from the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education, which Mr. Bush created in October.
Lead by former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, the commission found that up to 40 percent of special-education students end up in the programs simply because they weren't taught to read.
It affirmed recent studies finding that black students are twice as likely as whites to be labeled "mentally retarded" and placed in special education they're also more likely to be labeled "emotionally disturbed."
Teachers at the National Education Association's annual meeting in Dallas last week agreed with the findings but said they worry that schools won't get the funding necessary to train teachers to help younger students.
"We need to have more specialists who are there earlier for the children," said Charles Nelson, a high school special-education teacher in Little Rock, Ark. Responding to the report's criticism that schools must be more accountable for their results, he said, "Public education hasn't failed children; I think government has failed public education."
Ellen Dunn, who runs a job placement program for high school students in Fargo, N.D., agreed with the commission's findings on teacher training, which said that only one in five public school teachers feels "very well prepared" to address the needs of disabled students.
Miss Dunn attributed the problem to gaps in training for classroom teachers.
"When you're a math teacher, you do not get training in teaching kids with special needs," she said.
Barbara Taub-Albert, a speech and language pathologist for schools in Palm Beach County, Fla., works intensively with students who have problems in class, but sometimes her "individual" sessions grow to include as many as 12 students.
"That's not therapy anymore; that's a class," she said.
Like the committee, Mr. Bush has advocated better reading programs in early grades; he added $1 billion to his 2003 budget for "Reading First" programs.
Congress is preparing to rewrite regulations on special education later this year. School advocates want lawmakers to commit to guaranteed yearly increases in special-education funding, saying the government has met less than half of its commitment to give states 40 percent of the money they need.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate education committee, said the report offers insights on teacher quality and other issues but added that he was concerned it didn't take a stand on the guaranteed funding.
"As a result of the failure to live up to that commitment, parents, teachers, students and schools across the nation continue to be cheated out of the resources they were promised," Mr. Kennedy said.
Mr. Bush hasn't supported the full-funding effort but gave special education a $1 billion increase, to $8.5 billion, in his 2003 budget.
Miss Christopher, the Norfolk special-education teacher, applauded the new initiative but said special-education funding "never got to where it ought to have been in the first place."

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