Program to mainstream Israeli children with disabilities backfires, as more parents opt for special education

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The number of Israeli children registered for special-education classes this school year increased 50 percent from last year, as the number of students mainstreamed into general educational settings declined by 20 percent.

Ironically the decline occurred shortly after the Education Ministry began implementing a plan designed to do precisely the opposite – “to integrate students with a variety of special needs into the educational institutions,” as the ministry put it.

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During the 2020-2021 school year, of the 60,000 children diagnosed with disabilities, roughly half were in mainstream education and the other half were in special-education classes or schools. This school year, about 40 percent are mainstreamed, and 60 percent are in special-education programs.

Under the Education Ministry’s current approach, the children’s parents rather than the professionals on the Education Ministry’s evaluation committees decide where disabled children attend school. When the program was being developed, some professionals warned that because the resources offered to support children in regular classes were insufficient, the program to mainstream them would fail.

Parents of disabled children who spoke to Haaretz confirmed this.
“My daughter needs a support aide in the regular classroom, and if she had one she would go far,” said Sharon Deri, whose 8-year-old daughter has a developmental disability. Most recently, the inclusion committee approved six hours per week of aid for her.

School for kid with special needs in AshdodIlan Assayag Ilan Assayag

“That’s not enough,” the mother said. “They’re forcing us out of the regular class into a special education classroom. There’s no real choice,” she insisted, adding that she offered to pay for additional hours for a classroom aide, but the Education Ministry does not permit that.

The committees set an individual support budget for children being mainstreamed, based on their disability and needs. Theoretically, parents can choose how to split the budget between aides and therapies, but a shortage of these professionals often makes that impossible.

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“We asked the committee for a speech therapist, but at the new school, we were told there weren’t enough therapists, so he can have a tutor instead,” said the father of an autistic high-schooler who sought to transfer from special education to a regular school setting. The father chose to pay for his son’s speech therapy himself, an option not everyone can afford.

“The one-on-one aides are barely trained to work with autistic children and their turnover is very high,” said Yaniv Be’eri, whose son Kfir is autistic and attends a regular elementary school class.

A special education kindergarten in August, 2019.Tomer Appelbaum

The regular teachers don’t have the skills necessary to mainstream children with disabilities, “for whom they are a kind of headache,” as he put it.

“All along, we’ve been in an endless struggle for resources. My wife has been overwhelmed by all the fights. She wants us to give up on mainstreaming in favor of special education. I think it would be a shame, because Kfir loves the other children very much,” the father said.

Shai-El, an autistic elementary schooler, was in a regular classroom for three years, from 1st through 3rd grade.

“There were good things and bad things” about being mainstreamed, her mother, Lee Moyal, said. “Socially my daughter developed, but educationally it was a catastrophe. The staff didn’t understand autism, didn’t understand the difficulties that characterize her disability. The aide functioned as a teacher’s aide instead of helping my daughter.”

Due to the pandemic lockdowns, when schools were closed and classes shifted to Zoom, Shai-El’s parents decided to transfer her to a special-education class at the school.

“In this kind of classroom, there’s an understanding of autism. There’s a support system that’s perfect for the children. We see an enormous gap between the regular classrooms and special education,” Moyal remarked, but added that the decision was not an easy one.

“Socially, it was better for my daughter in the regular classroom. I came one day and talked to the children about autism, and they understood and supported my daughter. But in terms of learning, the gaps kept growing. If the staff had understood my daughter’s difficulties, I would have left her there without hesitation.”

The number of Israeli students diagnosed with disabilities has been growing every year. As of this year, some 296,000 children are diagnosed as disabled out of the 2.5 million Israeli children aged from kindergarten through 12th grade. The percentage growth of diagnoses is outpacing population growth.

About half of the children have been diagnosed with a learning disability of some kind, while the remainder have disabilities including autism, mental disorders, physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities and hearing or vision disorders.

Attorney Avivit Barkay Aharonof of the Bizchut center for people with disabilities said the Education Ministry’s new approach actually encourages parents to choose not to mainstream their children.

“The Education Ministry worked to give a minimal number of special-education service hours to mainstreamed students, regardless of what they actually,” she claimed. “The ministry presented parents with a choice between two tracks: mainstreaming that they pay for out of pocket, or a separate class. It’s obvious that many parents didn’t really have a choice. It’s not enough to market a reform under the name ‘Plan for Inclusion’ to change realities and worldviews.”

In a written response, the Education Ministry said it attributes supreme importance to integrating disabled students into general educational settings and views integration as a fundamental principle of the education system.

“Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton has asked that the Special Education Law be amended, including the clause on mainstreaming, to improve the resources available to students with special needs, including mainstreamed students.”

Dr. Sharon Tzahori, the director general of the Alut Society for Children and Adults with Autism, said in response: “For autistic children whose primary disability is communication-based, mainstreaming is a substantial part of practicing and improving their life skills and their capacity to maintain an independent and full life in the community.”

But for mainstreaming to be successful and to address its goals, it needs to give the child full holistic therapeutic support that provides the teaching staff, the children and the parents with the practical and theoretical tools they need, she added. The new Education Ministry plan is aimed at encouraging mainstreaming, she noted, “but unfortunately in practice, the disparity between the declared goals and resources devoted to it are insufficient and don’t permit a real choice,” leading parents to opt for special education instead.

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