Inclusive education in crisis?
A reform being pushed by the Education Ministry could force parents to put special-needs children back into special education
‘It’s about giving our children the chance to be equal, be contributing and functioning members of society like everyone else,” said Gaby, a Jerusalem mother of a child with Down syndrome. Her eight-year-old Hallel is finishing first grade. For her and many other families, inclusive education is important.
But the situation could change significantly. The Education Ministry plans to institute a reform that will change the criteria for children to receive special education services if they choose inclusion in the regular school system. Thousands of children with special needs who are able to thrive in a regular classroom with support will be left in the lurch if this reform goes through. Most will be forced back into the separate education system.
“With the support she gets, Hallel can now read and write at the same level as the other first graders in her class,” Gaby told The Jerusalem Post Magazine. “The thought of her being put into a special-needs school for no other reason than that they [the mainstream school] won’t be allocated the support she needs makes me feel nauseous.”
The Education Ministry provides an aide who supports her daughter 24 to 30 hours a week and Gaby pays for all the extra therapies needed. “Her wonderful school also fills in with other things out of goodwill,” she said, adding that this will change if the reform is to go through. The ministry is saying that the parent will have the legal right to choose to send a child to special ed or be mainstreamed, but it’s not a choice if one option comes with the support services your child needs and the other option doesn’t.
“They’re also raising the criteria for eligibility for support services – basing it on how “high functioning” the child is. My daughter is reading and writing and functioning perfectly in the class she’s in because of the help she has. Take the help away, she’s not going to function anymore. It’s like saying, ‘I gave you glasses, you can see now, so I’m going to take them away from you.’
“The criteria must be what you need, not how high functioning you are, because it’s the support that makes you able to function.It’s about giving our children the opportunity to succeed in a normative environment and contribute to it,” Gaby added.
There are about 245,000 pupils with special needs – about 11% of pupils – in the education system. However, only 8% of children who qualify for special-needs educational services are considered complex cases, such as children with chromosomal disorders, autism or cerebral palsy.
Many parents feel the reform is mainly about money and politics. Some say the system is going 20 years backward instead of forward.
Parents, teachers and organizations representing the disabled and special-needs community are fighting the Education Ministry, trying to stop the reform, which has passed the first reading at the Knesset. The
second and third reading and vote are imminent.
During the Knesset Education Committee discussions with Education Ministry representatives, parents, teachers, school principals and representatives from a coalition of over 30 NGOs including Bizchut, The Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities and Beyachad, Empowering Inclusion in Israel, have been arguing against the reform.
Parents say that these organizations have continually fought for inclusive education in Israel against all odds. “Many children with special needs would still be stuck in special ed without them.”
SEVERAL TEACHERS told the Magazine that this reform would adversely affect schools taking in children with special needs and that there were not enough resources and additional support as it is.
“We’ll have 23 children in a class and one child with special needs. That child will not have proper support. It will be our job to take care of them and give them extra attention at the expense of the other children. This reform will stop inclusive education altogether. It’s unfair,” one teacher said.
Rivka, who has several children with learning disabilities and special needs, said her biggest concern is that the Education Ministry doesn’t give enough support as it. “They don’t give us enough hours [with the aide]. They constantly fight us over what the aide needs to do. If it goes through I will have to pull my son out of mainstream education.”
Rivka said that the ministry is deciding “that children that are highly functional will get their extra help from a ‘sal statisti.’ They send a certain amount of money to each school and the school decides who gets the extra help. As of now, they decided that 5.4% of children [in mainstream] should be getting extra help, but really 8% need it. They’re going to add the highly functional special-ed students to get their extra help from that money, so many kids with special needs won’t get the help they need. We’ll end up putting our kids into special-needs schools and be forced to take them out of the community.”
The system hasn’t been working well, Rivka says. “They have to cancel the special education law and the regular education law and create a law that includes everything, that makes the system of education all one. They have to make the classes smaller instead of building a lot of special-ed classrooms, put 15 children in a classroom – especially if you need to mainstream the children [with special needs] – and hire more staff.
“Children create friendships from being together no matter what. Children who don’t learn together, even when they’re “normal,” have a hard time creating friendships in the community,” Rivka explained. “[Normal] children need to learn how to behave and react with children with special needs.”
If this reform goes through, “I will have to move my child into special education by the middle of next year… it makes me sick. I’m very worried.”
Nicole, whose seven-year-old son Daniel has Down syndrome, sees no need for reform.
“A law called Dorner was passed, but it doesn’t seem to be implemented. I don’t feel that the kids are getting all that they’re supposed to get, as they would if they were in special ed. Certain services and money are supposed to go with the child [with special needs] wherever they are, whether in special ed or in regular education. Suddenly, I felt all on my own – we realized there were no afternoon programs or therapies on site. I had to quit my job so that I can pick up my son and bring him to therapy and then bring him back to kindergarten. Everything was on our shoulders instead of the services being provided by the ministry.”
At the moment, Nicole’s son gets only 30 hours with an aid and cannot be at kindergarten without one.
“This means he can’t stay at kindergarten the whole day and can’t go on Fridays. With the reform they are going to base the aide’s hours on ability, but he needs an aide [at school] all the time – not just because he has a disability and to make sure he doesn’t run away, but to help him with his schoolwork. As it is, he can’t get the maximum amount of school time because the approved hours for an aide don’t even cover the school day.
“I have no idea how this reform is going to affect us going forward. If it gets any harder than it already is, obviously we’re going to have to give up, quit and go back to special ed or just go back to America because it probably runs a little better there,” Nicole explained. “We’re running out of resources. We’re exhausted and stretched to the max.”
Nada, a mother from east Jerusalem whose son also has Down syndrome, said the Education Ministry needs “to believe in our kids, stop treating them like they don’t matter. They need to focus on making inclusion available and better, more suitable for our kids. They need to treat our kids equally. Without inclusion, our kids would be totally lost.
“Our kids have no future or hope. They deserve to be equally included. They deserve a chance to shine in their own way at their own pace. They shouldn’t have to be put in special schools away from the normal surroundings. Kids like ours learn only from the normative atmosphere around them.”
She added that she had tried both mainstreaming and special education with her son. “I found that he gained a lot from regular inclusion but regressed when he went to a special ed school. That’s when I pulled him out.”
A Muslim whose mainstreamed eight-year-old son has autism spectrum disorder shares apprehensions with Rivka, Gaby, Nada and Nicole.
“This fight is one way of uniting us all. Maybe this will bring peace,” she said, laughing. “The ‘league of nations’ [Jews, Christians and Muslims] has come together to stop this reform. It cannot be allowed to go through. It’s an injustice to all the children – special-needs and mainstreamed – if money and politics take precedence over the education of our children,” she said.
“My son deserves the same chance as other children to have a normal life. I want him to work and to make society better. For him to rely on money from the government and do nothing with his life is not an option,” she said.
THE EDUCATION Ministry told the Magazine that this reform, part of the “broad process of strengthening special education, is a dramatic improvement of special education services to increase the integration of pupils in regular education and expand freedom of choice for parents.
“The new outline, formulated in the spirit of the recommendations of the Dorner Committee [The Dorner Commission to Examine Special Education] and working together with all relevant parties, is designed to enhance freedom of choice and improve the entire system of education services enjoyed by special-education pupils, including educational institutions near their place of residence. It includes a significant budget increase of a billion shekels for construction of more than 1,000 classrooms over four years. Another NIS 300 million a year will be allocated for paramedical treatments, training and support of teachers, creating therapy spaces, followed by transportation, budget managers for the purchase of hours of treatment and regulating role of coordinator of integration.”
The ministry insisted that the parents will choose the type of framework; eligibility will be dependent on the level of functioning and personal needs; and that there would be a full range of services, depending on the exact needs.
The Ministry said that several issues in the system led to the need for a reform. “There are not enough special education frameworks, so many needs are addressed within the private sector. Families are spending too many hours on the road [getting to therapies outside of school]. The resource allocation is also divided between too many, which has led to inefficiencies in the current framework.”
Avivit Aharonoff, Bizchut education department director, said that fewer children are becoming eligible for special-needs services and therefore being forced into mainstream education without support.
“That fails the children and overloads the system. The Education Ministry’s aim to transfer children with disabilities that are considered less challenging to the regular education system is excellent,” she said. “The problem is that they aren’t providing these kids with the support they need in the regular classroom; that’s not the inclusion they say they are championing.”
Whether the reform will go through remains to be seen, but for now, these parents and their children remain in limbo and 20 years of achievement in passing legislation that promotes inclusion seems to be unraveling before their eyes.
HALLEL, EIGHT, who has Down syndrome and is part of the inclusive education system, reads a ‘pasuk’ on Purim.
HAPPILY POSING with her friends, Hallel (second from left) is completing first grade at a mainstream school in Jerusalem’s Old City despite her disabilities.