By Daniel J Vance
Have public school districts been over-diagnosing students as disabled?
Jay P. Greene, Senior Fellow with New York-based Manhattan Institute and national expert on special education funding, believes school districts in certain states have been doing just that, thus leading to strained school budgets and hurt children.
"Over diagnosis [of disability] is almost never malicious," he said over the telephone from his Florida office. "School staffs really want to help students. But not all problems a student may experience should be classified as a disability."
Over-diagnosing can be blamed in part on what Greene calls the "bounty" system, the system that 33 states and the District of Columbia use to fund special education. In these states the state government offers financial incentives, a "bounty," to school districts for each special education student enrolled. The other 17 states don't offer bounties.
Not surprisingly, Greene says, "bounty" states have special education enrollments of 12.8 percent. The others have 11.5 percent. The difference may not seem like much, but from 1991-2001 "bounties" may have accounted for almost 400,000 additional students being placed in special education and perhaps $2.3 billion spent unwisely.
"Schools have difficulty diagnosing medical problems," said Greene. "Because of ambiguity in diagnosing some [disabilities] there is a tendency for school districts to turn all learning problems into medical problems. This has long-run, negative consequences for children incorrectly diagnosed with a disability. It also places greater financial strains on school systems, which are consuming resources that should be directed toward children with more objective, serious disabilities."
From 1991-2001, overall special education enrollment increased nationally from 10.6 to 12.3 percent. The rate of growth shows no sign of slowing. Some people claim the U.S. today has a higher percentage of truly disabled students than before, but this argument has no factual basis.
Certainly, there has been an increase in the number of children with autism and with disability due to low birth weight. But those increases have been offset by decreases in the number of children with mental retardation, and decreases due to government intervention (required infant car seats and lead paint restrictions, to name two), medical advances, and prevention efforts.
Greene's research suggests the bounty system is the primary cause of special education enrollment increases. This system may be creating an environment in which truly non-disabled children unfortunately are labeled as disabled, and those truly disabled receive fewer resources.