Should all kids, regardless of their individual abilities, be taught in the same classroom?
It's a controversial topic, and the laws around it are a little contradictory. For example, federal law requires disabled students to be taught in what's called the "least restrictive environment." In Connecticut, this is defined by time spent with non-disabled peers. But, for some kids, being around non-disabled peers could actually be considered restrictive.
"The least restrictive environment, that term, is commonly misunderstood and misused," said Julie Swanson, a special education advocate. Swanson is a member of a working group that's looking for ways to save money on special education and provide better services. One of the group's ideas is to create separate regional schools to house some students with disabilities.
The need for these schools, according to Swanson, is partially due to the dramatic rise in autism spectrum disorders. Fifteen years ago, roughly one in 150 children was identified as being on the spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In 2010, that number jumped to one in 68. This number could be higher, since the CDC estimates prevalence by looking at children who are already receiving services for their autism. A study in South Korea, for example, found a prevalence rate of one in 38, with two-thirds of those kids having been previously undiagnosed.
The rise in autism is generally attributed to an improved ability to detect the disorder, although others believe that prevalence is increasing. The reasons for this increase have not been pinpointed, though many theories have been posited.
Swanson said that some children on the autism spectrum would benefit from a special school, but certainly not all of them.
"Where the concern comes in, is when you have those kids, who may be less impacted by their autism, yet they still require some pretty intensive services, sending those kids to a regionalized center -- a separate building -- where there isn't any access to typically developing peers, is a concern," Swanson said.
State Representative Terrie Wood co-chairs the working group. She said the regional centers would model other successful special education schools -- such as Windward School in White Plains, New York -- and that parental preference would still matter.
"Parents have the option, as well they should, and the choice, to determine where they want their child educated," Wood said.
The working group consists of 21 members, and is a part of the Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies (MORE) Commission, which was set up in 2010 to find ways to streamline services among the state's towns and cities.
The General Assembly is set to explore the working group's suggestions.