Special education laws are generous but schools are stingy

by Grace

From a parent’s perspective, the problem with special education in our public schools could be summed up in these quotes by Penelope Trunk.

The laws protecting kids with special needs are very generous in U.S. public schools, but the schools are very good at not enforcing the laws.

And …

It’s cheaper for the school district to fight one or two parents in court than it is to give in on all the services. 


Penelope Trunk is a controversial entrepreneur and blogger with an unusual perspective on life.  It’s almost always the case that I either passionately agree or vehemently disagree with her views.  She homeschools her children and believes that is the right path for all parents.

The first quote comes from an interview by homeschooler Heather Sanders.

1. What was the deciding factor(s) that led you to homeschool your boys? Did your boys want to come home to school then? Do they now?

My oldest son has Aspergers. The laws protecting kids with special needs are very generous in U.S. public schools, but the schools are very good at not enforcing the laws. He went to four schools in New York and Wisconsin and I had to hire lawyers for each school in order to get the school to comply with the law. I got sick of fighting. I realized schools don’t want to comply with the law because it’s way too expensive for them and you have to either ignore that or take things into your own hands.

My youngest son taught himself to read at age three. I asked the school to test him at the beginning of first grade. He tested in math and reading at the end of third grade. I asked them what they would do to accommodate him and they said that legally they didn’t need to do anything.

They are, in fact, right.

The second quote is from a post that Trunk wrote last year: Special needs kids should be homeschooled.

Giving your child what is legally mandated is too expensive for your child’s school.

And here’s the bottom line: It’s cheaper for the school district to fight one or two parents in court than it is to give in on all the services. Unless there is a huge number of parents who will take the school to court, court is cheaper than giving kids what they are due. (It’s no coincidence that places with great services have very wealthy parents who can hire lawyers: NYC; Newton, MA; Bellevue, WA.)

And I can’t really blame the schools. The people who make the laws about what schools need to provide are not the people who have to balance the school budget.

And, if you’re reading this blog you are probably thinking that no kids receive an appropriate—this is the legal term—education in public school, so why should special needs kids get all the money? It’s a decent question.

One that I couldn’t answer.

I’ve had my own minor battles with special education bureaucrats.  I’ve known parents whose children have attended fabulously expensive private schools after they hired lawyers to fight for services.  I’ve also known parents who decided to give up the fight and whose children ended up receiving mediocre special education services.  Penelope Trunk is spot on with this commentary.

Related:  ‘co-teaching seldom raises student achievement’ (Cost of College)

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2 Comments to “Special education laws are generous but schools are stingy”

  1. 1. In a number of states, her youngest son would be entitled to special services, and may even have an IEP. What is done for gifted kids depends heavily on the specific state. NY is one of the worst states in the country for gifted education. So she might have been better off simply moving to a state that sets up IEPs for gifted kids.
    2. Homeschooling is only an option for families with education and means. This is especially true for families who have profoundly special needs kids. I have good friends in a midwestern state who have a child who has CP, is blind, and is severely delayed. They are also of moderate means, and both parents must work, especially since many of the medical expenses are not covered. Even if they could have a parent at home, neither of them has the special expertise to work with a blind, delayed child, They know this perfectly well, and have never considered homeschooling as an option. There are a lot of kids out there in that situation – very disabled, needing very specialized education, and in a family that can’t devote fulltime resources and where no one has the training to work with the child.

  2. 1. I believe that this happens because the “free and appropriate education” that must legally be provided only has to be equal to what non-special ed students receive. In the case of NY, the state does not stipulate that gifted students will get anything special.

    2. One of Trunk’s odd beliefs is that anyone, regardless of financial resources, can homeschool. Her supporting arguments make no sense to me.

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