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Getting an education--it's about power

We all know that securing a good education for your children is strongly influenced by clout. Do we have it or not? The mayor's kid usually gets more attention than the grocery checker's kid. If you have taken the trouble to make friends with the principal, you are more likely to get your way than if you never appear in the building, or even PTA meetings.

But rarely have I seen a better illustration of this than my colleague Emma Brown's terrific piece leading the Monday Metro section about how much Army and Marine Corps families are gaining from those services' decisions to back their members when they seek help for children with disabilities.

Among other examples, she tells how Karen Driscoll, wife of a Marine Corps officer, was told by officials of a northern San Diego County school district that they could only offer a classroom aide for her son ten hours a week. The child's previous school in Fairfax County had provided 21 hours and told her that was what she deserved under federal law.

Most parents seeking special education services know what that means. They are in for a long period of testy meetings, long emails, expensive private evaluations and maybe even legal action before they get what they need, if they ever do. But because of a new Marine Corps initiative, Driscoll had the services of a caseworker and a special education attorney in her meetings with school officials, and soon got what she was looking for.

The Army also has taken an aggressive stand on helping its people in this way, Brown reports, and the other services seem to be leaning in that direction.

It would be nice if all of us could call on outside help in this way. Vinetta Jones, a scholar and former dean of the school of education at Howard University, has explained to me in detail the beneficial power of what she calls third party interventions in education. A program she headed for the College Board in the 1990's jump-started what is now a national movement to accelerate math instruction. Without the College Board providing training and political backbone for six pilot districts, the notion that all ninth graders should have a chance to learn algebra would probably have developed much later.

The military's experiment in being the third party in its members' negotiations over special education services is similar, in that this third party has deep pockets and strong motivation to help the weaker of the two parties involved. It can't work everywhere, but it is nice to see it being tried when it has a chance to give more children a good education.

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For more of the Post's education coverage, go to

By Jay Mathews  | December 29, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Armed services family education needs, learning disabilities, special education, third party help in education issues  
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As near as I can figure, no small part of the extraordinarily broad support for NCLB was due to just this sort of behavior.

School districts had gotten used to treating Title I money as an addition to the general fund. That was in direct contradiction to the letter of the law which made the people are responsible for the law, Congress, look like a bunch of shmucks. I guess the lesson that can be drawn from the passage of NCLB is that if you want bipartisanism one sure way to achieve it is to humiliate Congress.

This sort of behavior's not exactly news.

Among my relatively small circle of acquaintances were a married pair of teachers whose son needed the sort of accommodation funded by Title I. The mother, in a meeting with district officials, let it be known in no uncertain terms that she was conversant with the law, had found an attorney willing to represent her son's interests and would file suit on her son's behalf immediately if the district didn't live up to its legal, and federally-funded, obligations.

The district folded but I had to wonder how many parents, lacking my acquaintance's background, would've had the confidence to call the district's bluff?

Posted by: allenm1 | December 29, 2009 6:58 AM | Report abuse

The article could not be more true. Students with the most support (outside of school) get the most help inside. Kudos to the Marines for living up to their slogan and "leaving no man (student) behind."

I am greatly saddened that we have made such small steps in the fair representation of all students, especially those that need our help and support the most!

Posted by: larkin1 | December 29, 2009 8:49 AM | Report abuse

And do we ever spend time wondering if the general public is well served by so few kids commanding so much of the funding?

I don't blame schools for doing their best to short shrift. Parents of special ed kids should be careful what they ask for. If everyone were successful at getting what the law demands be spent, the public would quickly demand that the law be changed.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 29, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Everyone has their idea of what services should be provided to their kids ("special" and "normal") so they can receive a good education. Nobody, however, is willing to pay for all of it which results in schools making hard decisions about how best to spend the decreasing pot of money.

Somewhere along the line, we as a society need to have a serious discussion about what kind of education system we want and then commit to funding it. Until then, I'll settle for some brave superintendent proposing to cut the high school football budget to help pay for some academic program. Won't happen but I can dream. :-)

Posted by: tstahmer | December 29, 2009 9:01 PM | Report abuse

sad to see the "dukes up" credo in this blog post, with references to 'testy' meetings and legal action.
do you go into your doctor's office threatening legal action when you think there is bad news about your health? do you loom over your architect with 'testy' comments when he or she has to modify a renovation plan due to zone changes?
hmmm, probably not. parents of children and teens with special needs are prey for attorneys who successfully transfer the family's grief, rage and fatigue into billable hours as they 'take on' the school district.
at the end of the day, the same people in these 'testy' meetings are the ones who will work with your child. approaching them as enemies and ascribing evil intent to their very existence is a poor tactic and guarantees that valuable time is wasted, to say nothing of money.
parents should deal with their emotions about the special need before seeking help from the school district. your children are poorly served by your actions and you gain little by 'insisting' on what you think is right merely because you have, finally, found somewhere to push back.
be angry with the disorder, not with us.

Posted by: nancyjeanmail | January 4, 2010 7:18 AM | Report abuse

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