11/10/2011 06:55 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2012

Are We Being Bankrupted by Our Humanity?

Growing up in New York City nearly half a century ago, I watched my parents try to get help for my developmentally disabled brother. There was very little available and my parents were told, on multiple occasions, by education and psychiatric professionals, to dispose of their defective child in an institution. They refused, embarking instead on a long and expensive struggle.

I'm not sure how much less agonizing and lonely it is today for the parents of children with special needs--last August, a woman in Maryland killed her autistic son and herself out of despair about his school situation--but I do know that there are many public resources now that were not available when our family could have desperately used them. Now, in the mornings, I see school buses dropping off developmentally and physically disabled children--and young adults (since our public education's legal obligation does not end until they are 22)--and I cannot help remembering the degradation my family faced. All the doors that slammed in our faces. Full inclusion--providing education, in whatever form possible and in the least restrictive setting, to children with special needs is expensive, and in the zero sum game of school financing, that is money that might otherwise be spent on the general educating on the vast majority of our children.

So too is the money we spend to educate children who are too ill or injured to attend school; they are entitled by law to a public education--in a hospital or in their own home with a credentialed teacher.

I am one of those teachers who sometimes travels, after my regular teaching day, to the homes of students who--because of illness, accidents, gang or other violence, or birth defects--cannot attend school.

I taught an eleventh grade girl in one of the two rooms her family of five called home during the six months she was on chemotherapy for lymphoma. Last spring and summer I worked with two young men, within three blocks of each other, who were paralyzed to varying degrees by gunshots. In such circumstances, a teacher tries to maintain some semblance of a real and rigorous education though the student is sometimes too tired or in too much pain or too disabled to do much. The young man I worked with last summer could couldn't hold a pencil or move either arm or hand enough to write anything. He could read though the bullet had blurred his vision and he was still waiting for his glasses. In such circumstances, a teacher tries to give the student and his parent some glimmer of hope and the feeling that someone cares, that they are not completely alone in their crisis--and maybe, while he's at it, some encouragement and recognition to a younger sibling who has, in all the turmoil, been overlooked.

Sometimes I wonder if the needs of one unfortunate student, whose potential may be at least somewhat limited, justifies paying someone my hourly rate five hours a week. Multiply that by the thousands and the expenditure is considerable. If we're in an educational lifeboat right now--or maybe a life raft, taking on the water of this economic crisis--can any single student be worth that much money?

But I suppose that another way to ask that question is this: how much is our collective humanity worth? And haven't we dedicated far too many resources to rewarding greed and inhumanity?

Perhaps the lengths to which we sometimes now go to provide an education to our least fortunate children is the thing we ought to be most proud of.

Perhaps when our nation compares, unfavorably, on standardized test scores to other countries (and many of those comparisons are, for many reasons, dubious anyway), let's ask what those countries are doing for their most challenged students--and if they are doing more than we are, then we can feel ashamed.

What is a greatest national crisis?

The shortage of engineers?

Or the shortage of human decency?

Perhaps the latter is beyond fixing and maybe I'm a fool for thinking that somehow when our institutions reflect a little more decency and charity it might inspire some individuals to be better people.

I don't mean to suggest that the systemic disaster of many of our schools and districts are somehow negated or justified by the extremes to which we sometimes go for our least fortunate students. Nor that we don't need to do a lot better at educating all of our students.

But in at least one respect--serving children with special needs--we are doing a better job than we used.

I tried recently to explain this to my mother who is now 85 years old and who, like many people of her generation, believes our public schools have gone to hell in the decades since she attended them.

She was happy to know that the options available to children with special needs and their parents are much more promising than what we faced back in the 1960s. Bittersweet, though, for her to realize that in a different place and time things might have been much better for our family and for my brother.