In June of 2006, I read an article in Commentary that scared the bejeezus out of me. The article was titled, “Why Have Children?” and was authored by Eric Cohen. After doing additional research, I wrote an article of my own titled, “Plugging an Important Hole in America’s Economic Dike: Preserving financial resources for a troubled future by educating the disabled” and hosted it on KPS4Parents’ web site at http://www.kps4parents.org/08_2006_article.pdf. I’m not going to repeat?everything you can read for yourself in these other materials, but I do have a few points to make. Here’s the Big and Scary in a nutshell: Our economy is a wreck. The biggest demographic cohort among us is the Baby-boomers. More and more of them are hitting what has traditionally been regarded as retirement age. A lot of them took a huge hit when the stock market crashed in the early 2000s. Recent developments with the real estate market, which has long been touted as one of the best places to invest, have taken their toll as well. Nonetheless, many Baby-boomers have assets for now and that’s giving many of them a false sense of security. With advances in medical science being what they are and what they promise to be, it’s not going to be long before living well past 100 is common. If a person retires at 65 and lives to 100, he or she will have to stash away 35 years of living expenses, taking into account the rate of inflation and the rate at which long-term healthcare costs are increasing. That’s a lot of money to sock away, particularly if the things this person has invested in over the years have failed to produce the additional income expected or the person has actually suffered investment losses. Well deserved motor home trips, vacation timeshares, and cruises to exotic locations may seem affordable now, but as some of these folks continue to spend on the fun things in life, or even if they’re just spending down their savings on day-to-day living expenses, at some point, a certain percentage of these folks are going to experience a medical situation that ends up wiping them out financially and then, in the most medically fragile state of their lives, they’ll go broke and end up dependent upon the Medic-Aid system at taxpayer expense in some Godforsaken nursing home for the remainder of their days. This may not be a huge percentage of the Baby-boomer population, but we already know that, statistically speaking, some percentage of our elderly have been ending up in this kind of a situation for a while now. Even if the percentage stays relatively the same, the sheer numbers of the Baby-boomers means that their percentage will translate out into a whole lot of people. This is going to place a tremendous burden on the taxpayers. At the same time, autism is occurring now at epidemic rates. With some sources insisting that we’re at an autism occurrence rate of 1 out of every 144 children at this point, we have to acknowledge that we are starting to get slammed with a need for increased spending in special education services. While there are certainly shining examples of how things should be done, there are also horrible travesties that most people don’t even know exist. We are a long way off from having a well-functioning special education system. Over the next 10-15 years, we’re going to see our workforce continue to shrink, particularly relative to the amount of people who will increasingly qualify for publicly funded services. Young people will become less and less?able to afford to have families and each generation will get smaller than the ones before it. The smaller generations that come after the Baby-boomers are going to end up bearing a significant share of the financial burden for the Baby-boomers’ care during their elderly years.? With each generation getting successively smaller, combined with the fact that so many jobs are going overseas that there is less domestic work to be done, what we’re going to increasingly see is a shrinking pool of taxpayers having to support an increasing pool of tax-dependents. Before this spirals hopelessly out of control, we need to pull out all stops and do as much as we can to educate all of our children well, including those with disabilities, so that we can produce as many competent taxpayers as possible and decrease the number of tax-dependents they will have to support. That means we need to invest in special education now, when these young minds are still malleable and ripe for learning. Unlearning bad habits once these kids reach adulthood is a nearly impossible task, particularly for more severely handicapped children. I don’t think you can appreciate that, really, until you’ve had a 23-year-old woman with cognitive impairments and hyperphagia lay down on the pavement in front of a city bus and refuse to move until you promise to take her to McDonald’s for french fries. I’ve had that experience and it was the direct result of a horrendous failing on the part of the agencies that were responsible for her in childhood to address her problem behaviors in a constructive way. At the time, it was my job to teach her more appropriate positive replacement behaviors to those she was engaging in, which meant teaching a person with a serious brain injury how to do something she didn’t necessarily understand or appreciate instead of what she had been doing all of her life. Whereas, working with children who have not yet formed very many bad habits can be a lot more fruitful. Children are simply more receptive to certain types of new learning than adults. While local education agencies may be operating out of a “not out my budget” mentality, they fail to appreciate (or don’t care about, or feel entirely powerless against) the bigger issue, which is the long-term cost to society on the whole that failing to provide special education services appropriately to eligible students now will cause. The costs of incarceration are exorbitantly high and generally fail to prevent recidivism. When you look at who is populating our prisons, you will find an enormous number of learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, mentally ill, and developmentally disabled people, most of them not getting any of the kinds of attention they need to pull their lives together, if that’s even possible for a number of them. And, while some areas are pushing to see state run mental institutions shut down and their inhabitants placed in the community with supports, there is also a push by the unionized workers of many of these facilities to keep these places open just so they can secure their jobs at taxpayer expense, not because their patients couldn’t handle a community-based placement.? We’re just warehousing our “broken” people or otherwise subsidizing them to maintain meager, unproductive existences rather than investing in eliminating or decreasing their need for publicly funded services and benefits. The cost of special education is nothing compared to the costs of taking care of disabled adults who can’t take care of themselves. It is unconscionable to rob children of their futures in the first place. But it is also reprehensively unethical of the public sector to short-change the taxpayers by creating a bigger expense through failing to fund a smaller expense, particularly while asserting the argument that the smaller expense wasn’t funded because they were trying to save money. When it comes right down to it, in every dispute over services for children with disabilities that I’ve been involved in, money has been at the heart of the matter.? Part of the problem, and it’s high time we do something about it, is that while the federal government has committed to funding up to 40% of each local education agency’s special education programs, it has not lived up to even half that in all the time that the laws have been in place that provide for the funding. The other disturbing thing I see, though, is that some local education agencies will gladly throw over $700K at legal expenses to deny $23K worth of services. And, then they shriek because they don’t have any money. I would far rather see public education agencies committing their legal resources to securing the federal funds they’re due than fighting parents over services the schools are required by law to provide. I hope I’ve made a compelling point here that this is one of the many serious issues troubling our nation and it’s a costly problem to solve. But solve it we must! The consequences of failing to do so are becoming increasingly dire. Additional Reading Recommendation: Futurecast by Robert J. Shapiro.