The George H.W. Bush Years: Common Standards and Special Education
The idea of common achievement standards was seen in some quarters as supporting the move away from a focus on desegregation. If all students were meeting academic standards, it would be difficult to argue that they needed access to either more funds or a more diverse schoolhouse. The focus on achievement standards also proved complex in the case of students diagnosed with disabilities. It was not clear whether the same "standards" should apply to all students equally, or whether different standards should apply to different students, depending on their different abilities. Over the years, diagnoses for "learning disabilities" had increased exponentially, so the resolution of this issue was not incidental. By the late 1980s, nearly one out of every ten students in the nation's public schools was suspected of having some form of learning disability. (Similarly, after autism and traumatic brain injury joined the list of federal grant-eligible categories, the rate of diagnoses in these areas skyrocketed.) Some said that with improved diagnostic techniques and due-process protections, high rates of diagnosis represented an accurate picture of disability in the nation's schools, but others noted how arbitrary and capricious the diagnostic process could be.
Policy analysts Richard Weatherly and Michael Lipsky observed as early as 1977 that referrals for special education often had little to do with bona fide disabilities. "The chances of a child being referred were associated with presumably extraneous factors: the school system and school attended, the child's disruptiveness in class, his or her age and sex, the aggressiveness and socio-economic status of the parents, the current availability and cost of services needed, and the presence of particular categories of specialists in the school system." Weatherly and Lipsky saw that frequently, "teachers referred (dumped) students who posed the greatest threat to classroom control or recruited those with whom they were trained to work. . . . In many instances, those doing the screening were actually referring children to themselves." Under these circumstances, it was difficult to tell whether federal aid for the disabled was being spent on children who were actually-or clinically-disabled, or whether it was being used to generate additional funds (otherwise unavailable from state and local sources) through the overdiagnosis of children for aid-eligible programs.
The issue of increasing diagnoses led Congress in 1985 to pass the Health Research Extension Act (P.L. 99-158), which called for an Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities to be run by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Given that 80 percent of students with learning disabilities had difficulty with reading, the NICHD focused its energy on this area, finding that reading disabilities were associated with subtle chromosomal and neurological differences and were, therefore, biologically "real" rather than socio-politically created-at least in the more severe range. This finding had implications not only for the implementation of specialized programs for the disabled but also for the implementation of standard-based reform and the use of the same tests for all students. "It is unclear whether children in the more severe range of disability can achieve age- and grade-approximate reading skills," the NICHD held, "even with intense, informed intervention provided over a protracted period of time." In other words, it made little sense to build school "accountability" provisions around a hope for equalized test scores among all students.
The findings led to dilemmas not only in the area of standards-based reform but also in special-education funding. As schools shifted from underidentifying to overidentifying students with disabilities, cost control became a major concern. One solution to this problem was the idea of "census-based" funding, which assumed an equal incidence of handicap identification across the total pupil population. Yet some objected to census-based funding on the grounds that it would lead again to underidentification of disabilities (because, if states receive the same amount of federal aid regardless of their number of disabled students, they would have an incentive not to identify more students as disabled than existing aid would cover).