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When it comes to special education, where you live matters

Lisa Kocab with her son PJ, who has down syndrome
Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio
Lisa Kocab wants her son, PJ, to go to school in a general ed classroom

As kids head back to school, it’s worth remembering that all kids have the right to a free education. But as we've pointed out time and again, free doesn’t necessarily mean equal. Where you live can have a big impact on the quality of education you receive, especially if you have a child with special needs.




Lisa Kocab has five sons ranging in age from kindergarten to college, so she's no stranger to the back-to-school routine. But this school year she's nervous.

"I am very non-confrontational and I don't want to have to fight," says Kocab. "I don’t really know what to expect."
Kocab is on her way to school to talk about her youngest son, five-year old PJ. He can sit "crisscross applesauce," he loves Winnie the Pooh, and he spends a lot of his free time cheering on his older brothers at their football and basketball games. He also has Down Syndrome.


Kocab is originally from Michigan (full disclosure, Lisa's sister is my sister-in-law), though she and her family have been living in Wisconsin for the past several years. They just moved back to Michigan for her husband's job, and almost immediately she started to call school districts to see where she should send PJ.


"I called one of the top school districts in the state and said ... I’m moving back to Michigan, I have a son with Down Syndrome, this is what we’re looking for, he’s been in general ed, and I was told “those kids” don’t go to school -- actually said "those kids" -- and I was floored."


She bawled when she got off the phone. She was shocked, angry, worried about her son.


She kept calling districts in and around metro Detroit. She wanted to hear that PJ would be able to go to a school in a general ed classroom full time with his typical-performing peers -- what’s called inclusion. Kocab says in order for inclusion to work, PJ needs two things: a special ed teacher to help modify the general ed curriculum for his level, and a paraprofessional to help him stay engaged, on task, and help with toileting throughout the day. Just like he had at his old school in Wisconsin.


But when it comes to special education, Matt Brock says "it becomes clear really fast that where you live makes a big difference in what kind of educational placement that you have."


Brock is a professor at Ohio State University, where hespecializes in special education.


He published a study last year that looks at where students with more severe disabilities are placed in schools -- specifically, students with intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorder and multiple disabilities. "That encapsulates most students with developmental disabilities," says Brock, " and also the group that's most likely to be served in some kind of segregated setting.


Here's how the U.S. Department of Education defines the different type of education placementsfor students with special needs:

  • at least 80% of the school day in a general education setting;
  • between 40% and 79% of the school day in a general education setting;
  • 39% or less of the school day in a general education setting;
  • segregated settings, defined as settings other than schools with general education classrooms (e.g., home or hospital-bound instruction, correctional facility, self-contained campus).

And here's what Brock found when he analyzed educational placement data reported by states to the federal government: Michigan serves a lot of its students in segregated settings -- we're talking 4th highest in the country. "They serve about 20% of students with developmental disabilities in segregated settings," says Brock. 



Wisconsin, as a comparison, sends just three percent of students with developmental disabilities to a segregated setting. 


The percentage of students who spend 39% or less of the school day in a general education setting is roughly the same in Michigan and Wisconsin, but when you combine those two categories -- 39% or less in general ed, and segregated -- that describes about a third of Wisconsin's students with developmental disabilities, compared to more than half of Michigan's.


(If you look at the most inclusive setting, where students spend 80% or more of their day in a general ed setting, Michigan is ranked 25th in the nation, with about 28% of students served there.)


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA says that all students with special needs are entitled to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. Michigan Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley says this state can do a better job on that last part -- the least restrictive part.


"If you had a student that was never in a general education classroom with their peers, how would they ever learn age-appropriate behavior?" asks Calley. "The system we have today is reinforcing negative outcomes. When a student is segregated from the general ed population, what’s happening is that that student is being denied an opportunity to observe and learn how the rest of the world acts, talks, lives, interacts with each other."


To that end, Calley put together a Special Ed task force last year and came up with a list of recommendations for how schools can better serve students with special needs. Calley says these two items are the "centerpiece" of the reforms:


  1. More training to help teachers work with special needs students in the classroom.
  2. More tailored education plans that base services on what the individual child needs, rather than a cookie-cutter set of supports based on the child’s disability.

You can see the whole list of recommendations here. There's a little over $1 million in next year's budget to help implement some of the recommendations, according to a state budget office official.
As for Lisa Kocab and her son PJ, after about half a dozen calls to different school districts around metro Detroit, one special ed director finally told Lisa what she wanted to hear; the special ed director said to Kocab, "absolutely PJ can go to school ... if you buy a house in Brighton, we'll work with you."


And that was that. Kocab and her husband bought a house in Brighton, met with the special ed director in person, and toured a couple schools. They haven't gotten the all clear yet, but they’re hopeful PJ will get to start junior kindergarten next week in the general ed classroom.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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