Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Of disability and ideology

Over the weekend I sat on a panel on education hosted by Young Labour in Wainuiomata. I was very glad to hear Sandra Grey and Rory McCourt say sensible things about the need to drag universal access to lifelong learning back into the realm of the thinkable, which I regard as an urgent political and social goal. My task was to talk about school inclusion and its challenges.

In both cases, the problem of how to think progressively about the issue pushes us headfirst against an ideological barrier. It is a very broadly disparaged yet ultimately successful ideology – it will do to call it neoliberalism for my present purposes – that has naturalised the notion of tertiary education as a private good, and increasingly primary and secondary education as well. What still goes by the name of ‘special education’ (a name that encapsulates and refracts aspects of that ideology) is also a fissure through which we can observe the privatisation of the idea of education more broadly.

The current regime for funding special education was set up by the National government in 1995 with the passing of Special Education 2000, but is part of the longer reform programme launched by Labour under David Lange, who was Minister of Education when Tomorrow’s Schools was launched.

Neoliberalism is just an inflection of capitalism, so it's hardly unique in placing its faith in the free market. Nonetheless, it distinguishes itself for the unshakeability of that faith, and for reflexively viewing all non-economic problems through the lens of the free market.

Thus Labour and National introduced competition among state schools that had no business competing with one another, under the ideological assumption that this would cause parents to reward the best schools with their business (ie their children) and improve education. But education isn't a consumer product nor, more importantly, are children consumers. Children are citizens whose equal right to education is unequally met. Like all other citizens, children come from a range of socio-economic backgrounds and in a range of abilities. And while the reforms didn't quite erase the first difference – by granting greater funding to schools in poorer areas through the decile system – they obliterated the second.

Absurdly, our education system views disabled children as privileged consumers: for it gives them a special voucher that they can spend at any school in the land, public or private, thereby giving them more choice than regular children; for it is so committed to their unique needs that it asks school to rate themselves (and not be rated by the people who attend them, mind) about how inclusive they are, reflecting a top Ministry-wide priority; for it designs specialist programmes and provides specialist advice.

This attitude is reflected in the two principal means for funding (therefore delivering) special education in Aotearoa: the school voucher known as ORS that goes to individual children, and the Special Education Grant that goes to every school.

As I have documented through our experience with our daughter, the voucher is allocated through a competition for a limited number of places as opposed to an assessment of objective need aimed at discovering how many children actually require extra support. This reflects the unstated but otherwise utterly transparent belief on the part of the Ministry and our lawmakers that receiving the voucher is an advantage as opposed to a dire necessity.

The case of the Special Education Grant, while less directly injurious to individual children and their whānau, is equally if not more symptomatic. The Grant is designed to supplement a school's operations fund to pay for the learning support needs of disabled pupils. Therefore you might reasonably expect each school to receive it in an amount proportional to the number of disabled children on their roll.

You'd be wrong.

The Special Education Grant is allocated to each school based on its raw number of pupils. So a school with one thousand children will get ten times as much money as a school with one hundred children, even though the latter may actually have more children with special needs on their roll. This is not a hyperbolic example: so-called magnet schools are a reality of our education system and are often victims of their own success at including children of all abilities. I’ve discussed this phenomenon before in the context of the perverse incentives towards exclusion that Special Education 2000 has created. These incentives are well-documented, yet they have been left unaddressed by successive governments for 20 years.

This is all ground I have covered before: indeed, it is the lot of the advocate to have to go through the same issues over and over again, boring oneself as well as others. What I want to emphasise today is the link to the ideology that underpins our reforms.

The Special Education Grant must be disbursed to schools irrespective of the number of children with special needs on their roll, because to do otherwise would mean allowing that school competition has a cost. Only if the model worked in its purest form would children of different abilities be distributed in a statistically uniform fashion. But the model doesn’t work, let alone perfectly. The ablest and wealthiest children are much freer to move, and are more easily drawn to the schools that spend money on attractive facilities rather than learning supports and teaching staff for disabled pupils, thus directing greater resources to those schools.

In the crudest possible terms: your child can afford to choose to go to a school that isn’t inclusive; my child can only choose to go where she is accepted. Therefore your child’s freedom of choice undermines my child’s right to an education.

It’s only fair to point out that I too subscribe to an ideology, which I own along with its history and its hope, its errors and its crimes. If our darkening century carries forward but one aspect of it, I hope it’s the slogan that Marx borrowed from Louis Blanc (and that goes back even further, for communism is an old idea): ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.’ Our aspirations for our daughter are encapsulated in that phrase: that she may be regarded in life and not just at school as a full human being, with needs and desires and her own capacity for expression to be nurtured and valued; instead of as a burden, a problem, a faulty economic unit of production and the passive object of lifelong care.