In 1785, John Adams wrote that “the whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

In other words: Every citizen deserves good schools, regardless of where they live or their station in life. For much of our history, we failed to live up to this foundational principle. But over the years, we’ve made progress in expanding educational opportunities to all children. But if we aren’t careful, new initiatives in Augusta could spur a new era of backsliding under the guise of “cutting costs.”

It wasn’t until 1975 that children with learning disabilities or emotional or behavioral disorders were guaranteed the same educational opportunities as nondisabled students. Legislation approved by Congress moved students with special needs out of segregated classrooms, ushering in a new era of inclusion.

In a unified classroom, students experience the diversity of the outside world. They develop an understanding and appreciation for people who are different than themselves. They learn to embrace those differences. Friendships can form that couldn’t otherwise. Parents are brought into the community through participation in the local school. Inclusion is a win-win not just for students with disabilities, but for the entire community.

According to Education World, inclusion leads to improved outcomes after graduation for students with disabilities. And a study on the long-term effects of inclusion found that “research and anecdotal data have shown that typical learners have demonstrated a greater acceptance and valuing of individual differences, enhanced self-esteem, a genuine capacity for friendship, and the acquisition of new skills.”

Of course, inclusion alone isn’t enough to guarantee success for students with disabilities. The cooperation of teachers, parents and others in the school is necessary to create the supportive environment necessary for learning. That could mean the assistance of an ed tech, the use of assistive technology or the development of an individualized education plan.

Those supports can be expensive. But too often the conversation about special education focuses solely on cost, to the exclusion of what’s right for students.

To cut costs, the Maine Department of Education is rolling out new initiatives to spur consolidation among school districts. Unlike the 2007 consolidation law, this one comes with real financial penalties for those districts that do not find ways to share services.

The inclusive classroom is an easy target for those looking to save money. At least some districts are looking for a path to meet new consolidation requirements that goes right through special education. The state has awarded grants to several new school or other facilities designed to consolidate special ed services, including a new school designed to be a “central site” for the education for disabled students from six different school districts, covering a distance that would take an hour to drive on a good day.

Changing the way we provide education to children with special needs is no small thing. It requires careful consideration and a transparent process that ensures the best outcomes for students.

We hope these new programs provide equal education to children with special needs, in the least restrictive environment possible.

Oversight and transparency are necessary to ensure students’ rights aren’t being sacrificed in the name of cutting costs. We both serve on the Legislature’s Education Committee, but could tell you very little about how the department is moving forward with these monumental changes, which could undermine the unified, inclusive classroom.

What were the criteria for approval? What accountability measures are in place? How are the alleged savings achieved, given that each new school or program will have its own administrative costs? We don’t know the answers to any of those questions. The Education Department has given this train the green light to leave the station before most of us even knew the tracks had been laid.

We trust that local administrators and faculty involved in these consolidation plans have nothing but the best intentions for students. But the Legislature must maintain active and aggressive oversight as the department develops new systems and programs for educating children with special needs.

As policymakers, we must be on guard to ensure that in seeking reduced costs, we don’t sacrifice the benefits of the inclusive classroom, or the civil rights of students who deserve to be educated in the same environment as their siblings and neighbors.

Rebecca Millett, a Democratic state senator from Cape Elizabeth, and Dick Farnsworth, a Democratic state representative from Portland, serve on the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

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