Denying Students the Services They Need to Succeed

In a recent Houston Chronicle Expose, it unmasked how unelected state officials have devised a system that has kept thousands of disabled students out of special education. As an educator in rural Mississippi, I was horrified by this piece and its findings. I’ve had the opportunity to teach students with disabilities and have seen first-hand the value and necessity in these various services.

Texas is the spotlight regarding this growing concern over cuts to special education services and the long-term impacts of the children that get left behind. In 2004, the Texas Education Agency created a regulation that restricts the amount of students who receive special education services to 8.5 percent. Furthermore, this regulation punishes schools that fail to abide to this benchmark. These new expectations are part of the Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis, which has led thousands of disabled students to be excluded from special education services.  School districts across the state have started to classify students as “504’s”, which allows students extra time on examinations but declines them access to special education services. Districts have also convinced parents to pull their children out of public school. This system has been so “effective”, yet roughly 250,000 students that have a right to services such as therapy, counseling, and one-on-one tutoring are being turned away. Technically, it’s illegal for states to cap special education. Texas’ way around the Individual Disability Education Act, a law that gave every child, including those with disabilities a right to access public education, was to count the number of special education students as an indicator of school quality. The effects of this percentage are reflected in the chart below:

This chart displays Texas’s “unofficial” special education cap. Looking at 2004 to now, Texas has 46 percent less kids with learning disabilities the percentage of students with emotional and mental illnesses, orthopedic impairments, speech impairments and brain injuries has also dropped significantly. This drop is most apparent in big cities – Houston and Dallas offer only 7.4 percent and 6.9 percent of student’s special education services. The origin of this “indicator” is rooted in Texas official’s decision to cut Texas Education Agency’s budget by $1.1 billion dollars. This drop is due to Texas’ system using low special education percentages as an “indicator” of school quality, not due to a decline of students who need special education assistance.

On average, educating a special education student is twice as costly as an average student.  The federal government pays only 20 percent of the cost of special education leaving a state like Texas to  spend nearly $3 billion in 2002; the main factor in creating the 8.5 percent cap on special education services.  According to former Commissioner Shirley Neeley Richardson, this 8.5 percentage was a “first stab” at addressing the high percentage of special education students. This “first stab” has been remarkably effective, as 96 percent of all districts have reduced their special education rates since 2004. Districts that did not abide to this percentage had their funding cut and were forced to provide a corrective action plan that would reduce special education percentages. Districts have also cut percentages by forcing families to bear the burden for disability evaluations, claiming there is a waiting list and falsely telling parents testing only happens once every two years.

However, one should not make the mistake of believing Texas and other conservative states are the only ones neglecting special education. Lawsuits have sprung up throughout the country, including in progressive states such as California and Massachusetts. A lawsuit in California heard by the federal courts dealt with parents throughout the state who argued that California wasn’t providing adequate education to disabled students. Parents in California fought in some cases for a decade to get their child the help they needed. A lawsuit also occurred in Massachusetts where the Massachusetts Advocates for Children argued that children are being left without services for months at an early age, stunting their developmental progress. As shown through Texas, California and Massachusetts, there are not enough protections in place for students with disabilities.

To ensure that students are provided adequate resources and equal access to a quality education, the federal government should cap itemized deductions for households. Per a CNN article, if the federal government caps itemized deductions to $50,000, roughly $749 billion would be raised in the next decade. If lawmakers want to make sure charitable contributions are not taxed, roughly $490 billion would be raised. The government should cap these deductions and stipulate that school districts must spend 50 percent of all additional funds received from this revenue towards special education students. This would give school districts the funding they need to provide students with an equal and equitable education.

Every day that the federal government stands absent, more students with disabilities are being neglected and falling further behind. Stella Young, a disability rights activist once wrote, “My disability exists not because I use a wheelchair, but because the broader environment isn’t accessible.” We must act so that all students persevere in an environment that will allow them to succeed.

Image source: Marilyn Nieves, Getty Images

Disability Insurance Skyrockets in the Last Two Decades

Political Pundits, public officials and the media often discuss the rising cost of entitlements and healthcare in the country. While Republicans and Democrats argue over how best to address these issues, few have acknowledged a key component to the rising cost of social security: an increase in individuals qualifying for disability insurance.

The federal government spent nearly $250 billion in 2011, paying more than 23 million people disability claims, 7 percent of the overall population and 16 percent of the workforce. This number accounts for nearly 4 percent of the federal budget, and is equivalent to 1 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. There has been a 44 percent increase in disability claims by people who used to be in the workplace and a 28 percent increase in disability claims among veterans. A report by NPR also found that populations receiving disability insurance were higher in certain locations of the country. In Hale County, Alabama, nearly 1 in 4 working-age adults are on disability.

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According to the Social Security Administration, a disability is defined as a situation where someone cannot do the work they did before and cannot adjust to other work because of a medical condition that has lasted or is expected to last more than one year or result in death. If an applicant is making more than $1,130 per month, they cannot qualify. With the rise in recipients, it is important to recognize the reasons why individuals are applying for disability insurance and how these reasons have changed. In 1960, the two largest reasons why an individual received disability insurance were due to issues with the circulatory system (26.9 percent) and the nervous system and sense organs (15.4 percent). In 2014, the two major reasons for receiving disability insurance were due to issues with the musculo-skeletal system and connective tissue (36.1 percent) and the circulatory system (10.0 percent). The three main causes that have led to the increase in disability insurance applications are the recessions in 2001 and 2008, an aging population, and a decade of war.

Studies have demonstrated the impact of economic conditions on the fraction of individuals receiving disability insurance benefits. During the recession of 1989 to 1993, the number of disability applications increased by 45 percent; between 1999 and 2003 disability insurance increased by 58 percent. Due to the great recession of 2008, by the end of 2014 the number of recipients of disability insurance had increased by 21 percent. These statistics are important for they demonstrate how many individuals are applying for disability insurance after economic distress. However, economic distress should not allow someone to classify as disabled.

An aging population has also led to an increase in those applying for disability insurance. The likelihood that a fifty to sixty-four-year old man receives disability benefits is 50 times greater than the probability that a man between twenty and forty-nine will receive insurance. Workers in their fifties are about 20 percent less likely than workers age 25 to 34 to become re-employed. Studies show that the aging populations has led to a 15 percent increase in the disability insurance among men and a four percent increase among women. Along with age, war has had a huge effect on individuals receiving disability payments. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of veterans receiving payments rose by almost 55 percent, from 2.3 million to 3.5 million. In 2000, 9 percent of all veterans received disability insurance, by 2013, that number rose to 16 percent. Average disability payments to veterans also rose by nearly 60 percent over this time period, from $8,100 in 2000 to $12,900 in 2013.

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Image source: Congressional Budget Office

All of these reasons and the significant impact of the recession on revenues led the Disability Insurance Trust fund to take on financial strain – at the end of 2014, the disability insurance trust fund was 152 billion less than what was projected in 2008 – with 60 billion in assets. With the increase in funding, the social security administration has projected that funding for the Social Security Disability trust fund will last until 2023. The funding was originally expected to run out in 2016, but due to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 and a reallocation of the payroll tax rate, the depletion date was extended. However, when the same problem comes around in a decade, reallocating the payroll tax rate should not be used again – it is an easy short-term fix, but does not address the problem that with technology, people are living longer and costs are constantly rising.

In order to secure disability insurance and social security as a whole, there must be a way to make the trust fund solvent. In order to save money, public officials should eliminate what is known as the carried interest exemption. This exemption allows managers to count earnings as capital gains instead of ordinary income – capital gains are taxed at 23.8 percent, while labor income is taxed at 39.6 percent. Closing the loophole would generate $17 billion in tax revenue over the next 10 years that could be used towards the solvency of social security. The federal government should also consider capping itemized deductions for households to $50,000 dollars which would save roughly $749 billion in the next decade. These savings would ensure that disability insurance remains solvent and adequately funded. Finally, the federal government should re-evaluate the review process for those receiving disability benefits. Currently, the Social Security Administration reviews cases that are expected to improve once a year, cases where improvement is not likely once every three years, and cases where someone is permanently disabled every seven years. Reviews should happen more frequently in order to ensure that fraud is avoided and that those receiving benefits truly qualify. Someone applying for disability insurance after an economic recession, not beforehand, may be more qualified for welfare and fall outside of the qualifications of disability insurance.

Social Security, specifically the disability fund, was designed to ensure protections for those who need it the most and cannot work to take care of themselves. Global conflicts, recessions and innovations in health and medicine have led society to change. The government must remain vigilant against fraud and adapt to the change in demographics, age, and the economy. The disability fund cannot be allowed to fail and our government must rise to the challenge of making necessary fixes so that our most vulnerable populations have the protections they need to live a good life.

Image source: Amerigroup

Death Rates on the Rise for White Women in Rural America

In the 2016 election, the electorate heard both candidates highlight the plight of urban communities and call for a resolution to common problems of crime, poverty, and unemployment. This spotlight, however, has led many to disregard a variety of problems that exist in smaller, rural, low-income communities. These communities are facing a plethora of challenges, one of which is rising morbidity rates for white women in their forties.

A study, conducted by researchers Case and Deaton, shows that rural white communities are facing increasing death rates. White women in particular have seen an increase in morbidity rates by 30 percent. The trend of rising morbidity started in 2000; in rural communities, 228 white women in their late forties would die for every 100,000 women. Sixteen years later, the rate increased by 77 percent, with 296 women dying for every 100,000. Between 1992 and 2006, female mortality increased in 42.8 percent of counties nationwide.

The two questions that must be addressed are why is this trend occurring and where is it happening? A study conducted in 21 counties throughout the South and Midwest found that the death rate for white women has at least doubled since the turn of the century. For example, in Victoria County, Texas, a rural area near the Gulf Coast, deaths among women 45 to 54 have climbed by 169 percent in that time period. The death rate climbed from 216 per 100,000 people to 583. Lauren Friedman from Business Insider concluded that, “if the 2013 rate had remained the same as it was in 1999, there would have been roughly 10,000 fewer deaths that year in this group.” These trends are reflected in the chart below:

 

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This trend has been evident for years. An increase in morbidity rates has coincided with a decline in jobs and an increase in incarceration and suicide rates. Labor participation for women decreased between 2000 and 2014 by three percentage points and for young women it has decreased by more nine percentage points. Between 2007 and 2011, state and local governments fired roughly 765,000 employees. Women comprised about 70 percent of those losses.  Loss of jobs in these rural communities have occurred at the same time as an increase in incarceration rates for white women. Between 2000 and 2014 incarceration rates have increased from 34 to 53 percent. Drug and alcohol overdose rates for working-age white women have quadrupled. Suicide rates are also up by as much as 50 percent.

While high death rates have long plagued minority women, for the first time in history we have seen a decline in morbidity rates for minority women and an increase in deaths for white women.  In at least thirty counties in the South, black women have lower mortality rates than middle aged white-women. Specifically, in Newton County, Georgia, southeast of Atlanta, death rates for black women between the ages of 35 and 54 dropped from 472 to 234 per 100,000 people. The rate for white women increased from 255 to 472. From this trend, it is clear that morbidity rates are high and must addressed in a way regardless of race. This trend should not be used by public officials to qualify legislative neglect; no policy should benefit one group of women over another. No one should discount the variety of challenges minority women face in regards to incarceration rates, equal pay, and access to education. However, it is time the rising death rates of white women is addressed.

In January, President-Elect Trump will be inaugurated and has discussed the need to invest more in infrastructure moving forward. Regardless of what side of the political aisle one may fall on, the need for investments in buildings, roads and services is an area that Republicans and Democrats can agree upon. In any infrastructure plan, there should be funding set aside to create healthcare centers in rural communities that are easily accessible. Research shows that already existing healthcare centers save the country $24 billion in costs by reducing hospitalizations and emergency room visits. However, between 2015 and 2016, federal funding for healthcare centers declined by $809 million. Renewed investment in creating high quality healthcare centers is needed because research shows that over 40 percent of rural residents have to travel more than 30 minutes to be treated at a hospital. Patients with serious conditions such as heart disease or cancer that require a specialist may have to travel longer. Greater access to quality care could potentially help prevent patients from developing serious conditions; a major issue the Affordable Care Act has encountered is providing insurance to high risk patients who are under-insured or uninsured due to a lack of access.

Hospitalizations account for 32 percent of federal healthcare funding. The Affordable Care Act is facing rising premiums, which are expected to increase by 85 percent due to the fact that a majority of those who are opting for federal healthcare coverage have pre-existing health problems. By making healthcare accessible, patients are more likely to receive premeditated treatment instead of waiting for their health to deteriorate to an insolvable point. Accessibility to a healthcare center also increases the likelihood that individuals will seek to obtain health insurance. The increase in demand has the potential to benefit private insurers and public healthcare provided through Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.

President-Elect Trump often spoke during his campaign about the neglect of millions of Americans by politicians in the last few decades. By using money from his infrastructure plan to create health centers, the health of millions of Americans can be improved. By building health facilities in these communities, President-Elect Trump will have the opportunity to not only stop the trend of increasing death rates for white women, but will have a direct impact on death rates for all races and genders as a whole.

Image source: David Goldman/ AP

Questioning the Efficacy of Corporal Punishment in Modern Day School Systems

My first week teaching high school in rural Mississippi, I witnessed my principal walk down the cafeteria hallway with a three-foot paddle, hitting the palm of his hand as he screamed, “Who am I going to get? Who am I going to get?” The students just stared at him. Some in fear, others in amusement; they all knew what was coming. Someone was about to experience corporal punishment.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child defines corporal punishment as “any punishment in which force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort.” The UN committee promotes the prohibition of corporal punishment worldwide. Currently, corporal punishment is banned in 42 countries. However, 19 states in the United States still employ corporal punishment in schools. The question that must be asked is, who is facing corporal punishment and is it effective? An analysis of federal data from 2009 to 2010 showed that 838 children were exposed to some form of corporal punishment on average each day in public schools, leading to over 150,000 instances a year. A civil rights report conducted by the U.S Department of Education found that in 2011-2012, that number had increased to 167,000 students who had received physical punishment, such as paddling, during the school year. Due to the rising trend in incidences, corporal punishment in schools must be addressed.

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The states that use corporal punishment are in the southeastern region of the United States. In the same civil rights report, Mississippi and Texas made up 35 percent of reported cases of corporal punishment. Adding Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia to the mix accounted for over 70 percent of all children disciplined with physical force in the U.S. According to the U.S Department of Education, black students make up 16 percent of students enrolled in public schools, but are 35 percent of those physically disciplined. Black children are three times more likely to receive corporal punishment than their white peers. This is reflected in a chart below:

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This disparity in corporal punishment however can be broken down by state. The Brookings Institution stated that black students are “twice as likely to be struck as white students in North Carolina and Georgia, 70 percent more likely in Mississippi, 40 percent more likely in Louisiana and Arkansas.” Clearly there is an issue of racial disparity in regards to corporal punishment. It is unclear whether its use is due to it’s effectiveness or a result of discriminatory behavior.

Proponents of corporal punishment argue that it is an effective disciplinary tool. As a teacher, I was told that the use of corporal punishment was a “cultural component” of Mississippi. However, research shows that corporal punishment is not only administered by racial lines, but it also has long-term health consequences. Pediatrician, Donald Greydanus, testified before a congressional hearing in 2010, on the effect corporal punishment has on academic success. Greynadus argued that physical discipline makes the school environment, “unproductive, nullifying and punitive,” and teaches that, “violence is acceptable, especially against the weak…” Furthermore, the International Journal of Business and Science found that the overuse of corporal punishment can have negative effects on children, such as stimulation of aggression, development of strong anxieties, imitation of methods of punishment, feeling of helplessness, aggression, social withdrawal, feelings of inferiority, substance abuse and many more. The report also found that adolescents that have experienced corporal punishment show higher levels of depression and feelings of hopelessness.

Our education system is designed to build students into productive members of society; clearly corporal punishment has unintended consequences and is a short sighted disciplinary tool. Supporters of this method, however, will argue that the policy is already set and has proven to be legal in the judicial system. In Ingraham vs. Wright, the Supreme Court decided that it is the state’s right to determine the legality of corporal punishment. However, despite this there are steps that can be taken to diminish and decrease the use of corporal punishment in schools.

In many school districts, administration can deliver corporal punishment without impunity. As a teacher, I have witnessed how harmful this lack of accountability is as it leaves the punishment of a student at the faculty member’s discretion and/or bias. Rather than allowing administrators to automatically have the right to use corporal punishment on students, the federal government should create a policy that requires parents to opt-in to corporal punishment at the beginning of each school year. This would severely decrease the ability of school districts to use corporal punishment because it would require parents to come in to the school and sign a paper that allows their children to be physically punished. Such a policy would make corporal punishment inconvenient and it would also force parents to question the efficacy and morality of allowing their child to be physically punished by school leaders.

Thus far, the most recent piece of legislation introduced was H.R. 2268, Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act of 2015, but has not yet been taken up for a vote on the House floor. It’s time for the policy of corporal punishment to be confronted so that all students can attend a school environment that is just, safe and focused on building them into the leaders and learners of tomorrow.

 

Image source: Edx, Saving Schools