For years, Jonathan Schuster’s mother begged the public schools here to put her son in a special program where he could get extra help for his emotional problems. By 11th grade, Jonathan had broken his hand punching a wall and been hospitalized twice for depression — once because he threatened to kill himself with a pocket knife.
But teachers insisted that Jonathan, who suffers from attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities and bipolar disorder, could get by in regular classrooms. His mother, Kathleen Lerch, says the reason was cost. “It was all about the bottom line,” she says. Citing confidentiality, school officials declined to discuss Jonathan’s case but said they seek to provide an appropriate education to all children.
Advocates for the disabled have long promoted the inclusion of special-education children in regular classes, a practice called mainstreaming. Many educators view mainstreaming as an antidote to the warehousing of children with special needs in separate, and often deficient, classrooms and buildings.
Now, some experts and parents complain that mainstreaming has increasingly taken on a new role in American education: a pretext for cost-cutting, hurting the children it was supposed to help. While studies show that mainstreaming can be beneficial for many students, critics say cash-hungry school districts are pushing the practice too hard, forcing many children into classes that can’t meet their needs. Inclusion has evolved into “a way of downsizing special education,” says Douglas Fuchs, a Vanderbilt University education professor.
Districts have a powerful motivation to cut special-education costs. U.S. schools spend almost twice as much on the average disabled student as they do on a nondisabled peer, according to a 2004 federal study. But the study also found that, in recent years, per-student special-education costs rose more slowly than for the general population. One of the likely reasons, researchers found, was cost savings from mainstreaming.