Stand up, keep fighting! (But not with each other)

In her column "Kiss Smaller Class Sizes Goodbye" (SW Journal, Feb. 6-19), Lynnell Mikkelsen identifies three factors behind anticipated class-size increases. After devoting four sentences to the first two factors (rising health insurance premiums and the state's failure to adequately fund education), the piece inexplicably launches into a tirade concerning the third -- special education.

As we develop strategies to fight against the relentless attack on public education funding, it's important to rationally consider special-ed facts.

Let's start with the Minnesota Constitution, which guarantees every child the right to a publicly funded education. That's all kids. Not just typical ones. Not just healthy ones. Until relatively recently, kids with obvious disabilities were usually deprived this right. It is hard to fathom the loneliness and isolation those kids and their families faced. Kids with more subtle disabilities were sent to public school, but were expected to perform alongside peers with little or no help. When they failed, they were labeled, which often accelerated a downward spiral. Kids and society paid a price.

Because of the work of Arc and other human rights advocates, Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1976. IDEA guarantees a free and appropriate education to all children. The "uneducable" are now educated. Outcasts are now included. Maybe most importantly, more people can now truly stake their claim to dignity.

There is a major problem, however. Education, and special ed, cost money. The federal government promised to pay 40 percent of IDEA's cost. That promise has been broken every year since 1976. So, state and local school districts shoulder almost the entire cost of implementing these civil rights.

We now face an unprecedented public-education funding crisis. We brace for even more state and federal cuts, given the current fad that favors a few tax dollars over essential human rights.

For some, this onslaught has generated a divisive urge to stake out individual bunkers within the public education system.

For proponents of quality public education, there are at least three reasons to resist that urge. First, bitter infighting over scarce dollars will sabotage our cause. Our single goal must be to achieve fair and adequate funding, if not through current lawmakers, then through their replacements. If we can't persuade the federal government to fulfill its commitment, then we must make sure the state comes through.

Second, special-ed is cheaper than our old exclusionary system. The old way involved state institutions and "special" schools. Often, it required public assistance for parents forced to leave the workforce to provide full-time care for their homebound kids.

Third, special ed in Minnesota works. It is not always perfect, but it works. Statistically and anecdotally, it works. Only 8 percent of Minnesota kids with disabilities attend separate schools (nationally, it's 27 percent). Minnesota's special ed scores on standardized tests are consistently better than national averages. For instance, 59 percent of Minnesota 10th-grade special-ed students passed the grad-standards writing test -- the highest in the nation. Statistics show that about 80 percent of today's 114,000 Minnesota special-education students will finish high school, allowing most to become productive taxpaying citizens.

My 4th-grade son has a rare syndrome. He is visually impaired and has other physical and cognitive issues. Thanks to IDEA, he has attended the public school two blocks from our house since kindergarten. With the help of special-ed services, he has thrived in a "regular" classroom. He makes friends. He learns. He reads. He's included. He's happy. I am unaware of any way in which he has adversely affected the learning opportunities of any other kid. In terms of funding, I have never thought that the additional services my son requires detract from the quality of education available to my two "typical" kids -- any more than funding school sports detracts from educating my child who has not participated in school sports.

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I might also suggest that the other kids in my son's classes gain valuable sensitivity for people with disabilities. That will go a long way when their generation is in charge.

We have many battles ahead. Resist divisive impulses. Don't play into the hands of the opponents of quality public education. Call, write, e-mail your federal, state and local leaders. Elect representatives who value quality public education for all kids. Meet, talk, learn. Keep fighting, but not with each other.

Dan Froehlich is a Southwest resident, parent and member of the Arc Hennepin-Carver Board of Directors. Arc was formerly the Association of Retarded Citizens.