Public Forum

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Special education: It’s not someone else’s issue

This time of year, our traditional “back to school” season, is a time of mixed emotions for many kids. A bit of excitement, a bit of nervousness, a bit of anticipation. And, although kids generally complain about going back to school, most of them secretly enjoy the routine, the friends, and yes, the academic challenge.

Innately, children want to learn, and they thrive on the good feelings and reinforcement they get from teachers, parents and peers when they do well.

Tragically, this time of year is a time of dread for many of California’s 690,000 children with disabilities. For them, school is often frustrating and excruciatingly difficult. Half of these children have learning disabilities, and, for them, schoolwork is like a puzzle that just won’t fit together. These children don’t understand why-even when they try as hard as their classmates-they just can’t grasp math, or reading, writing or simple concepts.

And too often this “back to school” feeling never goes away and becomes unbearable for many children with learning disabilities. They often develop an array of foils to hide their difficulty understanding. They develop behavioral problems, become defiant, and act disinterested in learning. Eventually, many just give up and drop out.

We’ve even learned over time that this downward spiral can lead to tragic consequences. Learning disabilities are one of the leading causes of illiteracy. Between 50 percent and 60 percent of adolescents in treatment for substance abuse have learning disabilities. The effects of learning disabilities do not end with school-unaddressed, they can lead to truly devastating outcomes affecting everyone.

The irony is that most of these kids are of average or above-average intelligence. With early intervention, the right learning tools, support and personalized encouragement, they can succeed at very high levels.

California’s schools are struggling to help them succeed, but the cost of providing appropriate special education has risen dramatically. Federal and state funding doesn’t come close to meeting the shortfall, and local schools are forced to fill the huge gap-$1.88 billion in 2006-07 alone. This funding “squeeze” has created a situation in which the quality of education for all children has been adversely impacted.

As a parent and PTA leader, I know we can make a difference for children with disabilities. With early intervention, specialized educational tools and programs, stellar special education teachers and professionals, adequate funding, and lots of caring, we can help all children succeed and have a life of opportunity. We can make “back to school” an exciting and positive experience for all children.

The governor has called 2008 “The Year of Education.” We need to let our lawmakers that the quality of education for California’s children with disabilities is not “someone else’s issue”-it directly impacts the quality of education and the quality of life for everyone in our state.

A lifelong resident of Los Angeles County, Pam Brady serves as president of California State PTA.

Pam Brady