Special Education and Equal Opportunity

©2000 Dennis Seaman


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As a school psychologist I have often heard the lament "Where does the individuals' rights end and the rights of the class begin?" In dealing with special education every now and then an extreme case is encountered where there is the sense that the needs of the special education student and that student's individual rights, privileges, entitlements receive more consideration and attention then the rights of their classmates. After all it is the class who has to accommodate to the extreme behavior of one or a few students. This extreme behavior is either maladaptive interpersonal behavior (which can jeopardize the safety of classmates) or maladaptive academic behavior (which can stretch the limits of teacher skills). This paper will review some of the arguments in the on-going struggle to be "fair" to all students.


1. Synopsis

One general complaint often heard about special education is the unfair allocation of resources to a few students at the expense of the majority, who then must do with less. Culp (2000) cites an exert from a Pennsylvania School Board Association legislative report, 3/3/00, which documents the reality of the regular versus special education struggle. "Much of the discussion was focused on the need for more money to be directed to special education programs. Legislators emphasized that many school districts are struggling and in need of greater financial assistance, with some districts being forced to cut basic education programs to pay for special education."

Often special education students require an inordinate amount of time by teachers and staff in order to meet their needs under current state and federal regulations. How quickly we forget the other groups of non-identified students who also require a great deal of time to meet their needs. For example, Title I and alternative education are two such regular education initiatives. The special education student receives hours of consideration by a team of educators to initially set up an appropriate educational plan and then to maintain that a program. The regular education student receives little of this expensive attention and planning. While such planning is mandated for the special education student, for the regular education student it is up to his or her parents to seek out similar program planning guidance. Also, while the special education students needs are considered individually, the regular education students needs are considered largely via group membership.

Not only is there an inordinate amount of time spent on individual program construction, there is also an inordinate amount of money spent on material resources. At times the special education student requires assistive technology or material adaptations that carry additional expense. Sometimes, additional personnel in the form of individual aides are required to promote student success within the school setting. Clearly the pendulum currently swings in the direction of these few "identified" students.

In response teachers are becoming increasingly frustrated with the demands placed on them by the current system. Work hours are often longer, expected, and uncompensated. Teachers are often ill prepared to deal with special needs students in their classrooms. Thus, teaching skills and tolerance are stretched. Both of these occurring in a climate which at times lacks support from administration and other shareholders. Taxpayers and board members are angry with state and federal government regulations mandating such expense and funding little. There are multiple levels to this equity issue.

II. Analysis of Controversy

Historical Perspective

"Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men ... the balance-wheel of the social machinery." Horace Mann
Perkinson (1995) chronicles the evolution of the American education system. The view espoused in education until about the 1880s was one which saw success as a possibility for the majority of people. One of the first and most famous "success manuals" had been compiled by Benjamin Franklin in 1757. His keys to success continued to guide the educational experience for the next hundred years. Those keys to success included moral virtue, industry, thrift, and perseverance. The function of school was to provide a common education for all children.

At the end of the 19th-century, with the growing industrialization of society, the rise of the "Robber Barons", and the rapidly expanding industrial work force, a growing unrest was beginning to take hold. The motto of potential success for all was beginning to be doubted. Perkinson (1995, p 92) provides a quote from a Chicago worker in 1887, "You know damn well my children will be where I am -- that is, if I can keep them out of the gutter."

In education at this time John Dewey developed a theory of instruction that was beginning to take hold. Dewey saw human development or growth in terms of the interaction between the self and the environment. The growth of the child was his central concern. Dewey saw the school in the role of model for a truly participant democracy.

Perhaps in spite of Dewey's writings and in the face of growing industrialization, the function of school began to change. School became "the great selector". This new system of education permitted only the most talented to climb to the top of the educational ladder, the ladder that lead to the professional jobs. By the 1940s some believed that even though the schools brought all children together and gave them a common experience and common literacy, one could see that by as early as ten or twelve years of age children were traveling different paths in life. For Perkinson (1995) notes that despite the plethora of studies by the 1950's documenting the fact that schools failed to fill their unifying function, most teachers continued to believe that they could carry it off.

By the 1960s Kenneth Clark criticized the schools for becoming "an instrument of social and economic class distinctions in American society". The cure for this condition became "compulsory education", i.e., the provision of special supplementary aid, counsel, instruction, and attention for the "culturally deprived". This became a grand attempt to use the schools to equalize children by making up for their "lacks". In the 70s the Education for All Handicapped law burst on the seen and the movement to "equalize" prior student inequalities continues to this day.

Recent litigation highlighted in a document provided over the Internet by a group called Kids Together, Inc. reflect the continuing struggle of handicapped students to achieve what they believe are equal educational opportunities. In 1982 the Supreme Court ruled that individual decisions need to be based on the needs of each child. Program placement should not be based on a specific disability but rather placement should be based on the unique needs presented by the individual student (Board of Education vs. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (2nd Circuit Court, 1982)). In Greer vs. Rome City School District (I Ith Circuit Court, 1992) the court ruled that the district cannot refuse to serve a child because of added cost. Thus, the financial tug-of-war continues with the courts clearly on the side of the handicapped.

At this point in time there is a long enough history of special education to ask whether this grand experiment has been successful. Has special education been the great equalizer in helping children become participants within our democratic society? Has special education allowed students to have equal opportunity to educational resources? Perhaps through an inclusive model of education some of the resources allocated for special education can be utilized in a regular education environment where more students could potentially benefit. After all, a meta-analysis completed by Klingner and Vaughn (1999) indicate that students with high incidence disabilities want the same activities, books, homework, grading criteria, and grouping practices as their classmates. Their peers without disabilities desire the same. Both students with and students without disabilities value teachers who slowdown instruction when needed, explained concepts and assignments clearly, teach learning strategies, and teach the same material in different ways so that everyone can learn. There appears to be an equalization of opportunity when special education is provided in the mainstream. All students have a chance to benefit from those aspects of instruction previously thought to be "special".

In an analysis of an educational system (Focus on Learning, 1995) with which there was dissatisfaction a number of factors were found. Among these was that there was placement within special education of many students not because of disability but because their needs are not able to be met within the general education system. Thus the special education system becomes strained when other criteria for class membership are brought to bear and effectively expand group size and need. Thus, the age old struggle between maintenance of the status quo and serving individual needs continues.

Finally, the system has just recently begun to track graduates of special education systems. In the next few years we should begin seeing reports on the post school success of these graduates.

Social Perspective Feinberg and Soltis (1992) suggests a number specific propositions for the discussion of individual differences and equal opportunity which are pertinent to special education. They suggest that promoting the good of the individual openly serves the good of society as a whole. They assert that we have to permit people to demonstrate their talents. Opportunity means being open to as many possibilities as possible for each and every student, and not closing any doors. Opportunity means giving everyone a chance to show their potential. The special talents of individuals are the valuable common property of society. Thus the point of equal opportunity in schooling is to provide an education that will develop everyone's individual talents. They caution that in labeling children, the children tend to live up to our expectations.

These assertions seem most in line with an interpretivist perspective. These views seem consistent with the positioning of advocates for special education. Treat each student as an individual and assist each student develop to their full potential.

Moral/Ethical Perspective Strike et al. (1988) discuss three moral principles in relation to equal educational opportunity. The principle of equal treatment requires the same treatment of people who are similarly situated in some relevant way. Those people who are differently situated are thus treated differently. Students receiving special education are by definition situated differently and thus should be treated differently.

The principle of benefit maximization appears to justify results that seem intuitively unfair. The principle of benefit maximization justifies any exchange between the welfare of one group for the welfare of others so long as the average welfare increases. The problem here is that potentially any human right might be threatened if its denial leads to an increase in the average welfare. Thus, the principle of benefit maximization is a potential threat to basic rights. Some proponents of education for the gifted have implied that investing in the brightest will produce the most gain for society. However, how is this "greater potential gain for society" calculated? Clearly, investing in the brightest may produce more doctors and scientists whose work may ultimately benefit society as a whole. But, how does this compare with the reward of investing in the less fortunate, those who required special education during their school days. Success for this individual may be gainful employment and independent living rather than taxpayer supported existence. How do you equate the two situations?

The principle of equal respect however has no such consequences. Equal respect insists that the rights of others are respected and not traded for the welfare of any group.

The maximin principle suggests inequalities are permissible only if they benefit everyone, especially those who received the lesser share. This appears to be a sound principle with which to argue for the continuation of special education. Because those receiving the lesser share are the regular education students, the average students, the so-called forgotten students. While they receive a lesser share, theoretically they continue to achieve at average or better levels. However, isn't this ironic! By definition the average group will achieve at average levels. What might they do if they had the same resources as that provided by special education students?

III. Conclusion This paper began with a bias setting quote from the father of American education. The historical perspective reveals changes in the perceived function of American schooling over the years. The struggle between serving the needs of the individual versus serving the collective needs of society has been a timeless one for education. Still, most educators hold to the idea of education as the great equalizer, even in the face of contradictory data, i.e., schools serving as the "great selector". As Clabaugh and Rozycki (1997) note, there are important payoffs for one or both sides when conflicts persist. With respect to the proponents for special education, the payoff may be in the ongoing debate over membership criteria. However, even here there are advantages to widening the definitional criteria as well as disadvantages. It was this issue which was attributed as a cause of one systems failure.

The social perspective appears to lend weight to the special education side in arguing for the development of the talents of all. Clearly these views are based on the functionalist perspective and not in Marxist perspective. From a moral/ethical perspective one could argue in favor of special education from the equal treatment perspective, ironic as that sounds. Given that those in need of special education are situated differently, thus they should be treated differently. But most certainly the principle of equal respect is and should be guiding educational policy at this time. The rights of others should be respected and not traded for the welfare of others. Clearly, this issue is not going to go away. Perhaps the best we can do is as mandated by federal and state statute, to treat each individual case on its own merits.


Clabaugh, G. C., Rozycki, E. G. (1997) Analyzing Controversy, An Introductory Guide. Dushkin/McGraw Hill.

Culp, Robert (2000) Unpublished Paper Critique for Dennis Seaman, 4/6/2000.

Focus on Learning, A Report on Reorganizing General and Special Education in New York City (1995) "Why the Current System Doesn't Work: A Review of Critical Evidence." New York University, Institute for Education and Social Policy. [On-line] www.nyu.edu/wa,-,iiei-/focuscliapt2.html

Feinberg, W., Soltis, J. F. (1998) School and Society Teachers College Press.

Kids Together, Inc. (1996) Children with Disabilities are First and Foremost Children Worthy of Equal Respect, Opportunties, Treatment, Status, and Place. (On-line). Available:

http://www.enter.iiet/-kidsto,~ether/rii~lit-ed.html or http://www.kidstogetherorg/index.html

Klingner, Janette K. & Vaughn, Sharon (1999). Students perceptions of instruction in inclusion classrooms: implications for students with Learning Disabilities. Exceptional Children, 66,23.

Strike, Kenneth A., Haller, Emil J., and Soltis, Jonas F. (1988) The Ethics of School Administration. Teachers College Press.

Perkinson, H. J. (1995) The Imperfect Panacea, American Faith in Education. McGrawHill