Some people believe that the government-subsidized medical and pharmaceutical industries could not exist without ever-increasing diagnoses of illness. I have come to understand a parallel truism about the public education system. State-run school systems, to continue operating as they’re currently constituted, must label more and more students as having learning disabilities or to be in some other way out of whatever’s considered the mainstream. Hence, spiraling numbers of students are enrolled in special education and bilingual programs.
I first became aware of this situation nearly two decades ago. Back then, I was working as a writer-in-residence in New York City-area schools for Poets In The Schools, which later merged with the Teachers and Writers Collaborative. Similar programs exist in other parts of the United States, and they all work in similar ways: They send writers, artists, dancers, musicians or other creative people into schools to conduct workshops in their specialties. I led classes in poetry, fiction and journal-writing in Harlem, the South Bronx and East New York, and in a school that was part of a children’s hospital in Queens. Working with the handicapped and chronically ill kids at the hospital’s school is the most wrenching (a girl and a boy died during the two years I worked there) yet spiritually rewarding work I’ve ever done for pay.
Where that pay came from doesn’t stir such warm memories. In those days, New York City’s education was divided into 32 Community School Boards (CSB). Each CSB received funding from the State and City for basic programs and supplies. That money couldn’t be used to bring programs like the one in which I was working to the schools. Instead, the CSBs applied for money for such programs to the city, state and federal governments, and occasionally from private foundations.
Money for artists in the schools wasn’t at the top of most funders’ lists. So, a few CSBs did some creative reclassification. As a result, without any training or previous experience, writers, artists and dancers like me became special education and bilingual education teachers.
How did the CSBs and school administrators achieve such alchemy? They classified the work that my creative colleagues and I were doing as special education and bilingual programs. I actually didn’t mind working with the kids who were so labeled: In fact, some of the more interesting poems and stories I saw came from them.
But I really had to wonder what some of the kids were doing in those classes. Some of the so-called special ed kids seemed no less attentive, responsive or skilled than the so-called normal students. In fact, a good number of them were better students and better-behaved than I was at their age! And, in the bilingual classes, I thought I’d put my Spanish and love of that language’s poets to good use: I read, and asked students to read, some poems in the original. I found that about half the students in one bilingual class I taught didn’t know any Spanish at all. They were classified "bilingual" because they had surnames that were, or "sounded," Hispanic. (What if they had "looked Arab?") One’s last name was Vigorelli.
I discussed what I saw with an assistant principal at one of the schools in which I worked. "That’s the only way we can get money for our schools," she explained. "The more kids that are in those programs, the more money we can get for them." So, she said, kids who even exhibit the slightest behavioral "problem," or "the ones we don’t know what to do with" are shuffled into such programs.
Then she revealed something should give pause to any parent. "Teachers are judged by test scores. But administrators are judged by the amount of money they bring to their school districts." Naïve as I was in those days, I asked her why school administrators should have to do such things. (Today I ask why we need most school administrators. But that’s another story.) Her reply: "It keeps us in line. We have to make nice with all the right people."
I have since spoken with a number of other teachers and education administrators all over the country and all have echoed that assistant principal’s observations and ideas. Not surprisingly, none would ever say such things for the record. And they all echoed one of that assistant principal’s rhetorical questions: "Why can’t we just get the money we need for smaller classes?" Then, she said, the kids who really have "problems" could get the help they need.
What I didn’t understand at the time — and what most people in education don’t understand — is that such a thing will never happen in a state-funded school system. Schools and school districts will always have to beg the government and hustle the private sector to get money, and the money will not end up in the right places because in a system of political employees and civil servants, someone will always owe someone else his or her job. Under this system, students whose minds wander or whose last names end up with a vowel will end up in some stigmatized program or another so someone can get his or her next promotion after cadging money from the government or foundations.
And people like me are turned into bilingual and special education teachers even though we have no qualifications for such work. Thus does a cycle of dishonesty and dysfunction continue. Now I realize that such is the norm in a state-run system.