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Are SPED Teachers Being Wells Fargoed? How Special Education Resembles the Wells Fargo Scandal

Special education teachers are under incredible pressure to prevent, reduce, or eliminate services for disabled students. Click To Tweet
The parents of disabled students, whose lives are already extra stressful, rely on state and federal laws and caring professionals to ensure their students receive proper services. When they realize that their child still can’t really read, add, behave, etc., they gird their loins and do battle with their school district’s special education (slang term, sped) staff again. Very few have the extra time, money, and energy to take on an entire school district. The state complaint process is onerous and non-supportive. Eventually, they give up on what they think is really best, and accept what they can get. Unless they can afford a lawyer, they are stuck. Parents who live in poor, rural areas like mine are especially vulnerable because the district administrators know they have the advantage. If I notice that a SPED student is getting proper support, I know that a close relative is a lawyer or school official.
I know the SPED story in my local school district best. I also know, because I participate in online forums, that my district is typical. We had a SPED load of 20% – which was killing our district. The additional high cost of providing so much service came out of the general education fund – and our poor rural district couldn’t afford it. Our special education director, hired three years ago, came to the rescue. She came with very little experience, far less than any other member on her staff, but she must have said the eight magic words at the interview: “Yes, I can fix your special education encroachment!” She pushes her staff to cut sped services by any means necessary. At first I thought she was a Godsend. Occasionally, a parent is savvy enough to file a complaint. She has a patented system for dealing with them – she throws her staff right under the bus. You should see her in action. She puts John Stumpf to shame. She’s the darling of the district bean-counters. There’s no one to stop her. The regular education teachers have all bought into the myth. They are told that the less money taken out of the general fund, the better for the majority of the students – and the possibility of a raise sweetens the pot.
Not only are they penny-wise and pound-foolish, they don’t realize that they have been tricked into picking up the slack. On one hand, it’s discrimination, pure and simple to deny a fair education to disabled students. The majority are learning disabled – an invisible disability. They can’t access their education. They’re stuck. They become frustrated, angry, depressed, anxious and more. In short, they become the students that no teacher wants. They end up in our district’s alternative education programs, which by the way, are also super expensive to run (50% more) – but they are still far less expensive than sped services which are double the cost of educating a non-disabled student – typically $20,000 v $10,000 a year. Alternative placements are a pure waste. We are just warehousing them. When they graduate, or more commonly, drop out, they are unable to be contributing citizens. Our community has to pay for their incarcerations, welfare, HUD housing, and stints in rehab. Although everyone must take personal responsibility for their lives, we need to ask: who really creates this constant drain on our community resources? As services dwindle, more disabled students spend all their time in the regular education class without support, and less time receiving the Specialized Academic Instruction (SAI) that they desperately need to succeed.
Without the proper credentials or training, regular education teachers have become the de facto special education teachers. They have seven or more disabled students in their class of 35 taking up 90% of their time – and there’s a huge untold cost to this approach. I’ll explain. It’s incredibly stressful to be expected to do a job you’ve never been trained to do on top of your regular full time profession. So why haven’t teachers rebelled? Because the water in the pot has slowly become warmer and warmer, and the kind-hearted, hard-working teachers are poached before they realize. Some have noticed and are jumping out of the pot, hearts broken, leaving the profession in droves before the stress kills them. The ones that don’t jump, hang on for dear life and pray that things will change. Or they stop caring and just go through the motions. Meanwhile very few students, disabled and non-disabled alike, are receiving a proper education. Ironically, it’s the new equalizer. Who are the minions that connive at the ground level to rob sped students of their education? Why it’s the special education staff! The very people we trust to serve our most vulnerable. And they don’t even realize how much damage they’re doing. They used to put their students first, and really advocate for what they needed. But for the last three years, I’ve watched them slowly turn into zombies who will say and do anything to cut services. Even our school psychologists, who in particular have a legal obligation, the very ones who evaluate our students for special education services, are on board. Because, if they aren’t, their professional lives become a living hell.
Special education professionals have massive amounts of paperwork, and huge caseloads. They accept it as part of the profession, and they’ve never given it much thought – until recently. As one long-time sped professional told me, “All they have to do to get rid of any SPED teacher who speaks up and defies the cuts, is to consistently audit their paperwork and constantly track the caseload. They will always find irregularities. Then they write you up.” Some have been written up for missing paperwork they know they had in place. It magically disappeared. Meanwhile, the ones who go along to get along, are praised, rewarded, and treated with great respect. All over America, those that still care don’t get fired; instead they are hounded out. They retire before they have a decent pension, or find themselves taking real estate classes. Their professional record is loaded with incidents that prevent further sped employment, which doesn’t matter anyway, because their professional confidence has been shattered. In our district, it only took the bullying of a few. Their colleagues got the message. They all have mortgages, children, and community roots. They just can’t go there. They fool themselves into thinking it isn’t so bad.
The Wells Fargo scandal has put bank oversight back in the spotlight. The bank had to pay back customers, pay large fines, and sweat under senate scrutiny. But so far, none of the executives have lost their jobs or had to pay back a dime of their booty. Where’s the incentive to be more responsible? Wells Fargo will ride again. There’s even less oversight and sanctions for school districts – the entities responsible for shaping our future. There will be the occasional investigation of a complaint. Changes are required; district promises are made. Then the state or federal investigators drive away and never look back. Do you know why? Because everyone involved knows that we can’t afford to provide our disabled students the services they are legally entitled to receive with the crumbs we get from the federal government, the entity which requires them. No one is willing to give up a thing to help bear the cost. Disabled students are a minority with parents too stressed-out to put up a good fight. What we do is worse than outright stealing the money that is sent to provide services. We use that money to pay special education professionals to prevent special needs students from getting the very services they are supposed to provide. Let’s admit we are licked and figure out what to do with what we have.
Regular education teachers need to be trained to accommodate all disabled students except the 1% who are severe. They are doing it anyway. Every classroom must have a trained teacher’s aide whose only job will be to assist with needed accommodations and provide push-in SAI, or pull-out if necessary. Special Education teachers will teach the one percent severely disabled – which will only be those teachers with a severely handicapped credential. Those with a mild to moderate credential will become Special Education Coordinators. They will provide continuous training to regular education teachers and special education aides, evaluate students for special education placements, schedule IEP meetings, and all other coordination tasks. If we repurpose our mild to moderate special education teachers, which make up the majority of the sped profession, we would need less of them. This would also clear up our severe shortage of these professionals. Suddenly, there’d be enough to go around. With the savings from less salaries and unnecessary alternative education placements, I think we could finally cover the current costs and also provide services to the growing percent that should, but are prevented from, receiving services.
Or, we could be like John Stumpf, and just fire them all. Then start over.

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