Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Are Gifted Students Legally Disabled?

America's public schools work a bell curve, and the educational delivery system is one in which the large majority of the population is served, that is the bulge of the curve. The average student gets, usually, an average education. (The implications of this are not really the subjection of this post, but are worthy of discussion). Of course, focusing on the bulge means that students on either end don't get the attention and focus they need. For the average student, we can determine that the modern public education system is at least adequate.

But the true test of a school or school system's merit lies not with the students at the bulge of the curve but in how it deals with the students on either end of the bell curve; those with learning disabilities or other "negative issues" and those students who are academically gifted. To be sure, we as a nation have made significant strides in helping those students who are academically challenged through disability to get an adequate education. But what have we done with those on the upper end of the curve? Far too little I am afraid.

Which brings us to this interesting story via May It Please The Court? and Blawg Review and outlines a real, but largely unrealized problem with public education.

It seems that a 13 year old prodigy and his mother are suing the state to provide tuition payments to UCLA since the single mother can't afford it. The basis of the suit is the fact that California law requires that all students under age 16 attend school with limited exceptions. Furthermore California Education Code Section 56000-56001 holds that
all individuals with exceptional needs have a right to participate in free appropriate public education and special educational instruction and services for these persons are needed in order to ensure the right to an appropriate educational opportunity to meet their unique needs.
Now, reading further along in the code, it is seems apparent that the California Legislature intended for this section to apply to "special needs" kids, those with low-incidence disabilities that may inhibit their ability to learn in a normal classroom environment. This apparent intent served as the basis for the court ruling in the case of Levi v. O'Connell(pdf document).

The court ruled that the state is not required to pay for the tuition of Levi's extraordinarily gifted son at UCLA. Levi claims that under the California Constitution, the U.S. Constitution, No Child Left Behind Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, she and her son are entitled to have the California Department of Education pay for tuition at UCLA or face violation of the Compulsory Education law. (Opinion at page 5). The legal question turned on whether colleges are considered part of the Public School System which the state must support, meaning pay the bills. The Court found through prior precedent that colleges are not a part of the school system are guaranteed as free to students. (Opinion at 9-10).

While it seems that an appeal will be forthcoming on the question of whether being gifted is a disability, the appeal will almost surely fail, as outlined in the court's opinion that being gifted is not within the definition of disability as outlined by IDEA and California law. So the court challenge is likely to fail, but the question is raised. What is the state's duty with respect to educating gifted and truly extraordinarily gifted students?

For the most part, I believe most public schools can provide some services for most gifted students, just as they provide services for most learning disabiled students. But while services for even the most severly disabled students are provided, what services are provided for exceptionally gifted students. While many gifted students may fall into a category of students requiring an individualized education plan, what if that plan calls for educational services that cannot be provided by the K-12 system, as is the case with this California student. What if the child, in order to have an adequate education, needs upper level mathematics or science instruction? What happens when upper level high school courses don't go far enough? It would seem that collegiate activity is possible and even necessary, but who should foot the bill? College is not free although farsighted colleges may waive fees for "celebrity" students.

Unfortunately, education in America is not without resource limitations and clearly those students at the top of the academic ability bell curve would be the ones to naturally get the short shrift because it may be thought that they can learn the material without much effort by the system. But what does that say about our appreciation for their gifts? Is that not shortchanging their educational experience out of expedience?

I have no answers for these questions, although it is a question that needs answers. Just as not every child will play professional basketball, not every child will win the Nobel Prize. But some kids do each of these things and we should be advancing the education of those exceptionaly children who may one day win the Nobel Prize, just as we provide outlets for exception athletes.

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