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Hartford Judge's Stance on Severely Disabled Students' Rights Stirs Controversy

Pool Photo / Stephanie Aaronson
Wall Street Journal

Many issues have come out oflast week's decision in a landmark school funding lawsuit, including how the state pays for special education.

In his order read from the bench, Judge Thomas Moukawsher said the state should rethink whether all severely disabled children should receive educational services, which sometimes run into the six figures.

"An appropriate education for some severely disabled, multi-handicapped children doubtless requires this kind of spending to get results, but we don't know who these children are, because no judgment on the question is made at all," Moukawsher said. "Schools wrongly think that they aren't supposed to think, but must do something no matter the degree or character of the benefit."

The judge then paraphrased the author of a study that described flaws in how Connecticut pays to educate students with severe disabilities.

"The reason so much is spent is because someone has to take responsibility for saying that it shouldn't be, and no one is willing to do it," the judge added.

That is, until now.

Speaking on WNPR's Where We Live, attorney Andrew Feinstein expressed concern that the judge's opinion in this case could violate federal special education law.

"That's a fairly dangerous concept," Feinstein said. "If we're basing quality of education on level of disability, we are in deed discriminating against the most disabled, and of course that whole notion -- because somebody cannot be educated they should not get services, leads to some troubling consequences. Why, for example should we be spending public resources on the elderly when they're not going to contribute to society under that sort of view."

The state has until March to think of new ways to pay for special education, as well as ways to identify students eligible for services. It's unclear whether the state will appeal.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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