Who decides what constitutes adequate special education?

EDMONTON – Heather Wall has spent years fighting to get her learning-disabled sons, now nine and seven, the support they needed to read.But the Fort Saskatchewan mother is frustrated. The Elk Island Public School Division, squeezed by rising costs, recently reduced classroom literacy supports and cut funding for early literacy intervention programs.

Wall says the staff at her sons’ school are terrific and supportive — but they don’t have the resources to give her kids the specialized intervention they need.

When Wall wanted to have her elder son assessed for dyslexia, she was told the wait would be a year. Instead, she and her husband Shawn paid $1200 for a private assessment. Now, they’re paying $60 an hour for weekly one-on-one treatment.

“With intensive remediation, he’s doing very well,” says Wall. “He’s already moved up a grade level. His confidence has improved. He’s so happy, it’s like he’s a different kid. ”

Wall is a nurse. Her husband works in human resources. While they can afford to pay for private treatment, it’s a major expense.

“We have to pay privately to fund his public education. Of course, I would always provide the best we can afford, within our means, for our children. But we shouldn’t have to. What about the people who can’t afford to do more than put food on the table? Why should they have to pay extra?”

Wall isn’t the only one asking.

Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada issued an extraordinary judgment.

The case involved a student from North Vancouver, Jeffrey Moore, who was seriously dyslexic. When the North Vancouver school board, facing a budget crisis, cut a specialized support program for students with severe learning disabilities, Moore’s family remortgaged their home and sent their son, then eight, to a specialized private school. They also filed a human rights complaint.

B.C.’s human rights tribunal initially ruled in the family’s favour, but was overturned on appeal. Last week, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the tribunal’s reasoning. It awarded the Moores every penny of private school tuition, half the costs of the transportation to the new schools, $10,000 in punitive damages, and all court costs. (The school where Jeffrey, now 25, successfully completed high school currently charges annual tuition of $25,000.)

The failure of the North Vancouver board to provide Jeffrey a comparable education in a public school, ruled the court, was discrimination. Said Justice Rosalie Abella, writing for the court: “the reason all children are entitled to an education, is because a healthy democracy and economy require their educated support. Adequate special education, therefore, is not a dispensable luxury. For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia.”

Disability rights activists are comparing the ruling to the to the Brown v Board of Education desegregation case. The judgment has the potential to give thousands of students a right, not just to “special ed” classes and classroom aides, but to intensive remedial support.

Yet it’s hard to imagine how public school boards can provide that kind of one-on-one therapeutic education, within current budgets. A big board like Edmonton Public, which has plenty of staff and programming, may be better equipped to cope — indeed Supt. Edgar Schmidt says he doesn’t foresee a major impact from the ruling. For smaller rural and suburban boards, it may not be so easy.

In 2010-2011, there were 65,711 special needs primary and secondary students in Alberta. The Alberta government recently added an additional $68 million to its “inclusive education” budget, bringing annual funding to $375 million. And the new Education Act, which the Conservatives hope to pass next week, states that where a student’s behavioural, intellectual, learning, communication or physical characteristics impair learning ability and opportunity, that student is entitled to specialized supports and services. But if the province downloads that responsibility to school boards already straining to fulfil all their responsibilities, those grand words will be hollow rhetoric.

And who decides what constitutes “adequate special education”? Parents? Teachers? The pricey private schools and therapists marketing their own special programs?

For Education Minister Jeff Johnson, it’s too soon to say what impact the ruling will have in Alberta.

“We haven’t had time to digest this properly. The legal folks are looking at it now to see what the implications are,” says Johnson.

“We want each and every kid to succeed and we recognize that it’s going to take a different investment for every kid.”

In Fort Saskatchewan, Heather Wall and her family wait eagerly for the fulfilment of that pledge.

Simons: Who decides what constitutes adequate special education?.

Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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