Public school teachers in Los Angeles, California went on strike last month to demand better conditions for students in their schools. Not only were teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District asking for a pay increase but also demanded smaller class sizes, more counselors, more librarians and a full-time nurse in every school.1
Such stories are becoming all too common in the media, particularly with respect to the impact on public school systems of the need for special education teachers and classes to serve the growing numbers of children in the U.S. with learning disabilities, developmental delays, and other special needs. News headlines such as “Special education enrollment in California is up. No one can say exactly why” and “Minnesota schools facing crisis level in special education funding” and “Special education funding should be Legislature’s top priority” are reflective of the crisis that public schools are facing in America.2 3 4
In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of students’ ages 3-21 requiring services through the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) as a result of their complex special education requirements.5
From the school year 1990-91 to 2004-2005, the number of students aged 3-21 who received special education services was 4.7 million (11 percent of the total public school enrollment).5 By 2015-16, the number of students of the same age group receiving special education services increased to 6.7 million (13 percent of the total public school enrollment).6 7 Among those, 34 percent had specific learning disabilities, of which 20 percent had speech or language impairments and 14 percent had other health impairments that impacted their ability to learn in a traditional classroom.
In addition to special education needs, the number of children with chronic health conditions has increased from 12.8 percent in 1994 to 26.6 percent in 2006.5 This increase of children and adolescents requiring extra support resources due to autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyper activity disorder, food allergies, asthma, juvenile diabetes, etc., has placed an enormous economic staffing burden on public schools.
Special Education Teachers Face Challenges
At the beginning of this year, 81 percent of Los Angeles teachers voted for a contract to end their strike; however, there is still concern expressed by one group of teachers—the special education teachers. One of the major concerns with this group of teachers is the class size, which they believe is too large and remained unchanged during the negotiations.8
The Los Angeles Unified School District serves approximately 73,000 special education students making it the district with the highest special education population in the United States. The Los Angeles Unified School District spent $20,689 on each special education student in 2018, which is $8,000 more per student in comparison to general education students. However, special education teachers maintain that extra funding does not solve the problem if the class sizes for special education students remains too large to effectively meet the needs of students.8
Amber Schwindler is a special education teacher for a class of children with autism at Germaine Street Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. She was interviewed by the publication LAist and talked about the challenges of her job as a special education teacher. Schwindler displayed a laminated math worksheet using velcro numbers for the equation 2+0=? She said it might look like a simple equation but it is not that simple for the students with autism.8
Schwindler stated, “It’s also a lot of occupational therapy. Because to un-velcro and to velcro the pieces is hard for some of our kids—to scan, find the right number is hard. When I say we’re doing addition, we’re doing addition, and OT, and speech, and everything—all at one time.”8
She added, “Every kid has an individualized need. For example, there is 17 steps in order to tie your shoe. First, you have to put your sock on, then you put your shoe on, then you have to loosen it… and people don’t think of this task analysis all the time.”8
Schwindler’s frustration is that, while a class of ten special education students does not seem big, it can become unmanageable very quickly.8
An Uncertain Future for Children
The United States faces a serious threat to its future economic success due to the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases and disabilities among children and the need for more special education classrooms and teachers in this country but health officials do not appear interested in finding out no one is asking why this is occurring. Studies have revealed that one child in six in America is learning disabled and one child in 40 develops autism.9 10
If children are disabled or chronically unhealthy in the early years of life, they are unable to learn effectively at school, therefore making it unlikely for them to be productive in the labor force as adults.
The number of vaccinations that pediatricians in the U.S. are directed to give to children has tripled in the last 35 years.11 In 1983, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that physicians give children up to 23 doses of seven vaccines between the ages of two months and six years old.11 The CDC now recommends that children receive 50 doses of 14 vaccines starting on the day of birth and by the age of six.12
Coinciding with the significant increase in the number of vaccines a child receives in the first six years of life is a simultaneous increase in chronic neurological and autoimmune disorders and to other poor health conditions in children.13
Most discussion around the impact of chronic diseases and disabilities among children and their special education needs has not fully addressed future economic implications. It is crucial for public health officials to focus efforts on understanding the root cause of why so many children in the U.S. are chronically ill and disabled.
1 Nadworny E, Wamsley L, Paris F. Los Angeles Teachers Strike For Smaller Classes, More Nurses And Librarians. NPR Jan. 13, 2019.
2 Finch II M. Special education enrollment in California is up. No one can say exactly why.
3 Golden E. Minnesota schools facing crisis level in special education funding. Star Tribune Jan. 19, 2019.
4 Campanario G. Special education funding should be Legislature’s top priority. The Seattle Times Jan. 25, 2019.
5 Marino S. Part 1: The Special Ed Epidemic: What is Happening to Our Children? FocusforHealth.org Oct. 23, 2017.
6 National Center for Education Statistics. Children and Youth with Disabilities. NCES.gov April 2018.
7 Salem T. Special Education Students On the Rise. U.S. News & World Report June 6, 2018.
8 Dugdale EE. LA’s Special Education Teachers Are Speaking Out About Contract Shortcomings. LAist Jan. 31, 2019.
9 Boyle CA, Boulet S et al. Trends in the Prevalence of Developmental Disabilities in US Children 1997-2000. Pediatrics May 23, 2011.
10 Jenco M. Study 1 in 40 children diagnosed with autism. AAP News Nov. 26, 2018.
11 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommended schedule for active immunization of normal infants and children 1983. CDC.gov.
12 CDC. Recommended Child and Adolescent Immunization Schedule for Ages 18 or Younger, United States, 2019. CDC.gov Feb. 5, 2019.
13 Fisher BL. The Vaccine Revolution for Truth. NVIC Newsletter Apr. 19, 2017.