State Policy Grew Out of a Spiritual Journey

Underfunding puts special ed at risk of disfavor in the state of its birth.

By Lori Sturdevant; Staff Writer
Publication Date: March 25, 2007

Fifty years ago next month, the Minnesota Legislature did something only one other state had come close to doing before. It decreed that "every school district... shall provide special instruction and services for handicapped children of school age who are resident of such district."

Special education was born here. It's as proud a Minnesota export as Spam and Scotch tape. Maybe prouder.

That history ought to weigh some on legislators this spring, as they consider whether state taxpayers have a duty to pay a larger share of special education's growing costs. I've got just the guy to help me tell Minnesota's special-ed story – former Gov. Al Quie. He's the only surviving member of the eight-legislator interim study commission appointed in 1955 "to make a complete study and investigate the problem of handicapped children."

"I was a green, wet-behind-the-ears, eager-to-learn state senator," Quie recalled last week. But the 31-year-old farmer from Dennison had caught the attention of a fellow member of the governing board of the Lutheran Welfare Society and the chairman of the state Senate Welfare Committee, Sen. Elmer L. Andersen.

That's right. The panel that put Minnesota out front in the education of exceptional children (they soon learned not to say "handicapped," Quie said) included two future governors. Elmer also recruited his brother-in-law, Sen. Stanley Holmquist, a school superintendent and a future Senate majority leader. This enterprise was loaded with talent.

Disclosure: I wrote two books with Elmer Andersen. We told his version of this story in "A Man's Reach," his autobiography, published in 2000 by University of Minnesota Press. Andersen, who died in 2004, often said he considered the 1957 special-education law his most important work in a long lifetime of public service.

Quie called it "the greatest learning experience" of his career.

When the Legislature met only in odd-numbered years, major issues were studied and bills crafted by small, select panels of legislators between sessions – hence, "interim study commissions." The selecting was done less on the basis of caucus or seniority than of interest and ability. Commission members were free to organize their work as they saw fit. They were accountable to the full Legislature, and expected to convert their findings into bills introduced in both the House and Senate the next session.

The possibility that many developmentally disabled children might be educated and become full participants in society was ripe for interim commission treatment in 1955. Warehousing the handicapped in state hospitals was increasingly seen as inhumane, costly and, with modern therapies, unnecessary. Research at the University of Minnesota by a visionary professor named Maynard Reynolds was showing what was possible with what eventually was called "mainstreaming."

Reynolds and Andersen connected and concocted a plan of action. Quie relates:

"We became enmeshed in the issue of what could be done and should be done with people who are handicapped. We didn't let ourselves get diverted by all the details about where will we get the money, how does this fit into the public school system, what about the private schools or the state schools and all that."

"We visited kids. We went to the state schools, the private schools, the public schools in Minneapolis that were already working on this. We went to the homes, where the parent and the handicapped child were. At that time, you often would not see those kids. Those who were mentally handicapped were hidden. Parents hadn't learned how they could be presentable among other people."

"We members of the interim commission became comfortable with spastic people, deaf people, blind people, the mentally retarded, the mentally ill. To talk to a girl who was bright, until the car accident, and now she was retarded... When a parent said of a blind child, 'I'm so glad we have him. I never would have known the value of the sense of taste, the sense of smell, the sense of feel, the sense of hearing, without him...' When you hear that, you say, 'I am what we now call challenged, because I don't understand that.' We also are challenged, because we are not fully aware."

"There was spiritual growth on that commission. What we came to understand is, there is infinite worth in every individual."

That understanding turned the eight commission members into zealots for educating in their own school districts all children deemed "educable" by the standards of the State Board of Education. Their spirit was infectious. It was rare that an interim commission's entire package of recommendations was enacted intact in one session, but that's what happened with special education in 1957.

Quie remembers no partisan fight over the program's cost (this was before the "no new taxes" era.) The package included a state promise to pay two-thirds of the salary of any professional special-education teacher hired to meet the new requirement, "not to exceed $3,600 per annum for each full-time person employed."

Amazing what 50 years of inflation does, isn't it? It's almost as amazing as what has happened to school district budgets since Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature removed inflation from the special-ed funding formula in 2003.

The state's share of special-education funding now averages about 40 percent, and it's dropping. The feds pay another 14 percent – despite their long-ignored promise to pay 40 percent. That means that in virtually every Minnesota school district, funds intended to reduce class sizes, buy materials or pay for extracurricular programs are now being used for special ed.

Keep that trend going, and special education will be doomed to political trouble in the state of its birth. Already, said Senate E-12 funding chairman LeRoy Stumpf, school superintendents tell him they are reluctant to disclose how much they are spending on special ed, for fear of a citizen backlash.

Quie uses strong words to describe a government that mandates an effort to give disadvantaged children a chance at a full life and promises to pay for it, but then reneges. "That's duplicitous, and duplicity corrupts the soul." It's not good for the body politic, either.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.
Posted with permission from the Star Tribune.