Equal Doesn’t Mean Identical

I’m guilty of living in a bubble.  A warm, supportive bubble that values kids with special needs and learning disabilities.  My bubble is full of people who believe that giving children the help they need early on ensures that they become productive members of society.  Gifted, twice exceptional, or special needs, it doesn’t matter.  All kids deserve a great education.

Today, I was gut-punched into reality when I read the comments on a Washington Post article about the special education case winding its way through the Supreme Court right now.  So many people had completely logical, concise arguments about how children with special needs are taking resources away from “normal” students.  They talked about how it wasn’t a productive use of resources, as these children are a “drain” on society.  They argued that you can’t teach intellectually impaired children, so why even try?  A few people even suggested that this case was a great argument in favor of abortion.  Let’s abort children with special needs before they can be a burden on society.

I’m horrified.  I find it sad that people actually think that children with extra educational needs don’t deserve resources to help them learn.  Let me emphasize that: deserve.  They think that letting children struggle and fall behind is ok.  Because somehow, giving students extra support means average students will get less.

I get it: it’s all about the funding.  And no matter where you fall on the issue, you have to admit that our schools are underfunded.  Or rather, misfunded, in some cases.  At a time when schools are cutting back on enrichment activities like art and music, it’s difficult to justify funding an aide to assist one child.  But that’s the wrong way to think about it.  Why are schools struggling to provide an education for everyone?  How can we fix it?  Does the system itself need to change?

I also understand the dilemma that the Supreme Court finds itself in.  How can you define an “appropriate education” for such a wide range of students?  Special Education covers everyone from severely disabled to the invisibly disabled.  There is no easy standard, no simple way to check the box, fill in the blank, and be done with it.  For Special Education (and Gifted/Talented education) to really work, you need a child-specific analysis with baselines, goals, and record keeping.  That’s time-consuming and costly.

The comments that I read on the WaPo article had one thing in common: the fallacy of fair.  The commentors mistakenly assumed that fair is fair: it’s equal.  No one gets more of anything else than another.  The problem with that belief is that it assumes that all children are the same.

As a parent, I find that hilariously wrong.  Of course all children aren’t the same!  All adults aren’t the same either – we’re all different.  So why would we assume that children are any less wildly varied than we are?  We’re old and set in our ways.  They’re young, with developing minds and a world of potential if we just give them a chance.

Let’s leave the kindergarten mindset behind.  Equal isn’t identical.  Fair isn’t identical.  Equal means that all children have the chance to learn in a way that works for them.  Because if you don’t give children an equal education, then it’s not an education at all.  It’s daycare.  Babysitting.

Average students can learn without extra support.  Gifted students, students with special needs, and twice-exceptional students can’t learn without those additional supports.  That’s what’s really unfair: not being able to learn.

You might think that I really don't have any place in this discussion - after all, we decided to homeschool.  I still have hopes of letting the Engineer dual enroll in middle school and high school classes later, when he can cope a little better.  And truly, we all have a place in this conversation.  It affects our country, our future, and we're the ones paying for it.  


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