Part 2: How One Man Continues To Support Youth With Special Needs

August 13, 2016
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If you would like to read Part 1 click here!

Did you start to see a shift or further results?

In the late 1990s, I was still frustrated. I had been at this for ten years; it should have been enough to move the needle. Unfortunately, even with all of the press and influence, bringing about significant change was still a challenge. I wanted to write a book, a fiction piece that brought the story of education reform to a mass audience. I wanted to write a piece that fit in with American Literature, a story that we could make into a screenplay. In 1997, I hired a young woman who was a journalism major. I told her my story idea, and she turned it into a screenplay treatment.

When she completed her work, I took the screenplay and put it away with my files. I pulled it out ten years later in 2007 and read the screenplay treatment again. I knew this was a unique story, one that Americans would enjoy reading. I called the Minnesota Film Bureau and they told me, “Now you have to turn it into a novel.” And I did; I turned it into a book entitled The Last Year of the Season (North Star Press, 2014). The book tells a story about the gridlock of public education in America and captures the actual state of American public schooling.

Although it took all that time, it made me believe even more in books. And I shared it with Mark Claypool, my co-author on this current book. I said, “Mark, you should write a book. Voice this out, Mark. You have the experience. You do things for the American public education sector that nobody else does. You have hundreds and hundreds of school districts as clients. You are educating 18,000 kids every day who are marginalized in American public education. You have a platform. Let’s turn it into a voice.” And that’s why we wrote our book, We’re in This Together: Public-Private Partnerships in Special and At-Risk Education (Roman & Littlefield, 2015).

Have you found school districts that are more accepting of what you are doing and some that are less accepting? Do you see a drastic difference according to political areas and regions?
Again, this is a big issue that requires a complex, multi-faceted response. Some places embrace what we do, while others will not engage. We focus on four types of areas at ChanceLight, but for this conversation, we’ll concentrate on two areas, Special Education and Alternative Schools.

Let’s talk about the history of Special Education
The environments for special education radically differ in the United States. Gerald Ford signed PL 94-142 in 1975. This law guaranteed a free appropriate public education to every child with a disability. This law came about through decades of work in advocacy for children with handicapping conditions. Before PL 94-142, we had a series of hearings in the 1970’s that showed that there were more than 1 million children in America who were denied access to public education because of their handicapping conditions. At the time, superintendents had the power to ignore children with disabilities because it was believed that these children were uneducable.

We also had 2 million children in American public schools that had handicapping conditions and were receiving an incredibly substandard education. It took a federal law to make special education mandated across the country. You can’t deny access to any child in American public schools regardless of their handicapping condition. And I say that because I don’t think that’s hardly appreciated anymore.

Although the law passed and is mandated, it is amazingly underfunded. It should be funded at 40% on the federal level. In reality, it is funded at about 15%. This forces school districts to respond at a state and local level to a rather expensive part of public education. Of our $630 billion industry, we spend about $100 million on 13% of our children; we spend a lot more money on special education than on mainstream education, but that’s the nature of the beast.

Can you give us an example of a state that is meeting the needs of these kids?
Yes, California was ahead of PL 94-142. Massachusetts with its 766 schools was way ahead of PL 94-142. There were some states that, because of their culture, their history, and their wealth, created better opportunities for kids with handicapping conditions than most other states. The majority of states did not take root in engaging the private sector or in trying to create the best opportunities for kids, regardless of whether it was a public or a private school. Some states say they are not going to get involved with the industry. It’s a political issue and an approach to the market.