by Laurie A. Cummings, Senior Consultant for Economic and Education Policy

Special education students, once segregated in separate classrooms and buildings, are now a familiar sight in mainstream schools.  In this Advisor, Dr. Robert Docking discusses the implications of mainstreaming policy for students, teachers, parents, and public schools.  Docking, who has spent 37 years working in Michigan public education, is a former superintendent of the East Lansing and Bloomfield Hills school districts.  He was honored by his colleagues in 1988 by being the first person named Michigan Superintendent of the Year.   Dr. Docking currently is a full‐​time professor of education leadership at University of Detroit Mercy and one of PSC’s affiliated consultants.


In the past, special education students were placed in entirely separate classrooms or buildings from general education students. When Dr. Robert Docking began teaching in 1957, the only special education classrooms in mainstream public schools were for kids who were mildly mentally retarded. Other categories of special education students did not attend public schools; for example, children who had hearing loss went to the Michigan School for the Deaf, and children who were blind attended the Michigan School for the Blind. In later years, most categories of special education students were segregated in special classrooms within mainstream schools or, in many cases, educated at “center programs,” usually located in an intermediate school district building.

Center programs were created in the 1950s, explains Docking, “to encourage local districts within the county to pull together to give special help to children with ‘low incidence’ disabilities (for example, students with severe mental and physical disabilities). By bringing these disabled students together countywide, districts achieved some economies of scale, which allowed them to provide physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, nurses, and other specially trained staff that would otherwise be impractical.”


During the last ten years, most parents of special education students have wanted their children placed in general (non‐​special) education classes for two main reasons: (1) to foster socialization with other children, and (2) to remove the stigma of being separated from mainstream students. To illustrate, Docking relays the story of one parent who “leaned across my desk a couple of years ago, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘I know my daughter can’t learn at the level of other kids her age, but you know what I want for my daughter? That before she dies, she be invited to a birthday party.’”

This practice is called “mainstreaming” or “inclusion.” Although segregated classrooms and center programs still exist, special education students are increasingly being mainstreamed. Docking predicts that mainstreaming will continue to increase and that gradually, segregation of students regardless of disability will end, even if the students need support in the classroom from a full‐​time aide and/​or a special education teacher.

Mainstreaming has been a controversial issue in many schools, and in some cases, parents of general education students have objected to the practice. Despite such objections, Docking explains that general education parents have to accept the decision of the Individual Educational Placement Committee (IEPC), which determines the educational plan for special education students. If the IEPC decides that a child should be placed in a general education classroom, federal law requires that it be done. Parents who object cannot reverse the IEPC’s decision, says Docking, because “special education students have additional protections that general education students don’t have in terms of due process.”

Docking believes that one reason special education students enjoy such protections is because of the power that special education parent advocacy groups have developed over the years and the groups’ relationship with the Michigan Education Association (MEA). “The parents of special education kids want the very best for them,” says Dockiing, “and the teachers’ union has been very interested because mainstreaming provides a tremendous number of jobs with very low student‐​teacher ratios.”

Mainstreaming Issues

Advocates of mainstreaming believe that it promotes diversity in schools and therefore benefits all students. Docking points out that the experience of interacting with kids who are physically or mentally impaired better assures that all students develop a sensitivity that they and their community will benefit from in the future.

Many educators and parents, however, have concerns about mainstreaming. One problem is that general education teachers usually have not had any special education training. “They have been trained to teach ‘normal’ kids,” explains Docking, “and in the past few years they have seen kids come into their classrooms who have Down’s syndrome, little or no vision, severe hearing loss, learning disabilities, or some combination of these and other impairments.” This means, he adds, that more than ever before teachers have to provide more diversity in the level of instruction they provide and accommodate students who may learn at a very different pace; teachers also have to teach — without the benefit of appropriate training — students who have significant emotional problems.

One of the most contentious mainstreaming issues, according to Docking, is the amount of time teachers must devote to special education children who have severe emotional or mental impairments. “Teachers sometimes have a part‐​time aide or special education teacher who has appropriate training, but mainstream‐​ing can take considerable time and focus away from general education students.”

When a special education child happens to be destructive or otherwise disrupts the classroom, general education parents often say, “That’s not right — that’s taking too much of the teacher’s time away from our kids.” In many cases, this issue has led to conflict between special education and general education parents.

Another mainstreaming concern, adds Docking, is that special education students who attend general education classrooms lose out on the services provided by center programs and have less contact with educators who have been specially trained to teach impaired students. There are a number of parents of special education children who do not want their children included in general education classrooms because they like and need the services, such as physical and speech therapies, provided in center programs. In Docking’s experience, some parents who take their children out of center programs in order to enroll them in mainstream schools end up returning them to the centers because they miss these important services

The Cost of Special Education

Although the number of special education students in Michigan has remained fairly stable — about 10 percent of total enrollment since 1983 (see Exhibit 1), the cost of special education accounts for a greater percentage of school district budgets every year. According to Docking, this is due to a combination of factors:

  • Various state and federal regulations make it very expensive to provide special education. For example, special education class sizes must be small; an autistic classroom, which is required to have one teacher and a full‐​time aide, is limited to five students. The cost of one Michigan district’s autism program serving ten children is $475,610 (not including transportation), or $47,561 per child plus the cost of transportation.

    Another requirement is that special education teachers be certified in one or more of 12 disability categories. This also raises costs by reducing districts’ flexibility in assigning staff — only a teacher certified in a particular disability (say, emotionally impaired) is allowed to teach students with that disability.

  • The legal costs associated with providing special education can be significant. Federal legislation requires states to provide disabled students an “individually designed” education, which the parents and educators design together. If they cannot reach agreement about which services will be provided for a child, a hearing before the IEPC takes place. Docking explains that “it is a judicial process that can go all the way to the state board of education and frequently does. If the parent isn’t satisfied then, they can request further hearings or take their case to court. A hearing process that winds up in circuit court can easily cost the local district between $45,000 and $50,000 in attorney fees.”
  • Federal funding is insufficient to pay for federally mandated programs. When the 1974 federal law requiring states to provide special education was passed, it stated that the federal government would pay 40 percent of the additional costs to states of providing certain services. As of 1995, however, only 8 percent of the added costs are paid by the federal government, forcing schools to make up the difference.
  • State funding is insufficient to pay for state‐​required programs. Michigan has special education laws that go beyond the federal requirements. For example, certain categories of services (particularly for those children who are severely mentally and physically impaired) must be provided for 230 days per year, 50 more than required by federal law. The state also requires schools to educate students in some disability categories from birth through age 26, as opposed to birth through age 21 as required by federal law.

These requirements increase the cost of providing special education, but the state does not reimburse districts for these added costs. Docking points out that the state initially committed to paying 75 percent of any additional costs resulting from these policies, but in 1995, for example, it only paid about 11 percent, forcing districts to pay the rest. (See Exhibit 2.)

The districts have made up this difference in various ways. Public Act 18 of 1954 allows intermediate school districts to hold a countywide millage. The remainder of the funding, Docking says, “comes out of the general education budget, because other funding sources can’t keep up with the cost of special education.”

The Future of Special Education

Docking made several noteworthy predictions for special education in coming years.


Currently, there are over 15 different federally recognized categories of special education students, and a child may be categorized, or labeled, in one or more of them. (See Exhibit 3.) The categories were developed in order to group special education students by disability and, subsequently, segregate them. Such categorization allows schools to provide special education students with teachers who have been certified to deal with specific learning disabilities and are with the children all day long. The categories also are used in part to determine the amount of funding school districts receive; for example, the education of an autistic child is far more expensive than that of a hearing impaired child and is funded at a higher rate. Docking believes that the fact that the labels drive funding gives schools an incentive to label kids in order to maximize state funds, thereby adding to the stigma faced by special education students.

Docking explains that over the years we have gone from two labels — mentally retarded and emotionally impaired — to over 15. He believes, however, that in the next five to ten years a three‐​category system will take effect. The three categories, according to Docking, will be high incidence, low incidence, and sensory‐​deprived children. The benefit of such a system, he contends, is that schools will be better able to “teach special education students in a general education environment without putting a label on them.”

A collapse in the number of special education categories will change the label‐​driven aspect of funding, says Docking. “If we delabel, we’ll find that funding policies will have to change because funding is now driven by labeling kids.” He also suggests that the three‐​category system would lead to less rigid teacher certification requirements, since teachers currently specialize in the 15 disability categories. Loosening certification requirements would allow school administrators more flexibility in decision making on the number and type of special education teachers hired

Weakening of MEA Influence

Docking explains that the MEA, the state’s largest teachers’ union, has had a great deal of power in “handling special education rules and regulations, class size, and certification that has kept student‐​to‐​teacher ratios at a low level.” With the weakening of the union’s power in recent years, he expects a “softening” of special education rules and regulations. Although parent advocacy groups will remain strong, Docking believes that without the combined influence of these groups and the MEA, revision of special education rules (such as the collapsing of disability categories described above) is more likely.

Measuring Outputs

In the past, policymakers focused on special education input measures, such as class size and student‐​to‐​teacher ratios, to assess quality. Docking predicts that the focus will change to one based on the results of special education, such as whether students gain specific job skills. He predicts a “tremendous emphasis on the transition to the job world after high school … and a lot more focus on the life skills that they’re going to need to make it.”

Recent Development

There are reasons to believe that some special education rules and regulations may be revised in coming months. A recent court ruling (Durant, et al. v State of Michigan, et al.) essentially determined that the state has imposed “unfunded mandates” on schools by requiring them to provide state‐​mandated special education and other programs. Under this ruling, the state must reimburse 84 districts a total of $492 million for the cost of these mandates since the 1979 – 80 school year, about 90 percent of which are due to special education. A number of other districts also may be eligible for payments, increasing the cost to as much as $3.5 billion

Unless successfully appealed, the ruling will put pressure on state officials to cut costs in education and other budgets. Special education is a likely target for cost cutting, particularly since state officials already were discussing ways to cut special education costs prior to the Durant ruling. The most likely scenario is that the state will repeal any requirements that go beyond federal law.


When asked whether he thinks mainstreaming’s good points outweigh the bad, Docking says: “I think that inclusion is a step in the right direction for education. I do support making the rules less rigid and reducing program costs because special education is extraordinarily expensive. Given the limited resources for public education, we can’t continue to bear the unbelievable burden that special education currently places on local school district budgets.”

Although Docking says he is not a “true inclusionist,” he believes that, historically, there has been too much segregation of special education kids and that the trend toward inclusion has been appropriate. He believes “it is good for all children to experience a mainstreamed environment so they can learn to be more sensitive and tolerant.” He points out, however, that there are some special education children who do not belong in general education classrooms because of the “disability that they have, the destruction they may cause, and the unfairness it creates for teachers and other kids in that classroom. There are times when you simply have to draw the line.”

The issues of special education will no doubt intensify this year as schools and the state search for ways to reduce education costs. In Docking’s view, the solution to this dilemma is a relaxation of special education rules and regulations, such as teacher certification and class‐​size requirements. Given the passions of special education parents, policymakers may find this education reform one of the most contentious yet.

Copyright © 1997