Editorial: Why are special ed needs so high? We don’t know

Vermont, we are told, has the nation’s highest per-capita rate of students who receive special education services because of emotional needs. The reasons vary, but they include things like poverty, substance abuse and homelessness.
When you talk to educators, they will tell you they have never seen things as bad as they are now, and they are referring to classroom behavior, which is a reflection of what the students experience at home.
The answer isn’t complicated: Improve the home environment and the school’s environment improves correspondingly. Easy to say, incredibly difficult to do.
And what is it, exactly, that is causing our problems? We’re not sure.
The state’s opiate addiction crisis is a strong contributor. The number of children in state custody, due to parents with addiction issues, has doubled in the last year. Vermont has the nation’s smallest class sizes, so any percentage increase in the number of “troubled” youth in our classrooms has a noticeable effect. Addiction issues with the parent also have spin-off issues that are particularly difficult for the children to negotiate.
Increased levels of poverty have also been marked as adding to the pressures in the classroom. If children come to school hungry, the ability to learn is reduced. If the children are moved from town to town because their parents can’t find affordable housing, that, too, is highly disruptive. We have classrooms with transient rates of 25 percent and up. In a classroom of 16, that’s four students moving in and out. That’s four students who must adapt to new classrooms, and that’s 12 other students who must adapt to them. Every year, the game of musical chairs continues.
What’s odd is the mismatch in information we receive about ourselves.
Vermont has been ranked among the healthiest states in the nation, year after year. This distinction is based on a variety of factors, the most important being how much we spend on education, and the strength of our social services network. Few states spend more.
And if the childhood poverty level in Vermont is a strong contributor to our issues, then we have a lot of company. We’re constantly ranked nationally as having one of the lowest childhood poverty rates. Our per-capita income levels are also above the national average.
So why is it that Vermont’s special education needs are so high? Are our standards less demanding? Is it easier for a student here to be identified as a child in need? Are children in larger classrooms, and in larger states slipping through the cracks, whereas in Vermont, they are not?
Or is it the opiate addiction issue that separates us from others? Why is it that we have “heavy needs” among today’s students that we didn’t have a decade ago?
We don’t really know. But we need to find out. It’s almost impossible to successfully address an issue if we don’t know why it’s occurring. If our problems are being disproportionately affected by the opiate addiction crisis, that tells us where our efforts need to be directed. The same can be said of other causes. But we have to have more information than we have now.
In the meantime, let’s not compound the problem. When we’re told that our teachers are facing behavioral issues on a scale they’ve never before experienced, it would seem prudent not to make them worse, which would include little things like having our legislators understand that legalizing pot would probably not have the uplifting effect on classroom behavior that’s useful.
In the meantime, we need to do some homework on our own. We need to have better answers as to why the needs of our students are so much higher than those in other states. 
— Emerson Lynn
St. Albans Messenger

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