The Education Ministry is turning its back on children with disabilities

Why are so many countries (other than Israel) working so hard to promote inclusion over segregation? Because inclusion works. It is good for students with and without disabilities.

MK and Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the Mimouna hosted by the Harosh family in Lod (photo credit: Courtesy)
MK and Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the Mimouna hosted by the Harosh family in Lod
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On Wednesday, July 4, the Knesset will likely bring to a vote a proposed law to deprive thousands of children with disabilities in Israel of their right to attend school with their brothers, sisters and neighbors. The proposed law, Amendment 11 of the Special Education Law, provides funds for services for children with disabilities in separate special-education schools, but not for children who wish to attend their neighborhood schools. This proposed law contradicts not only current Israeli law, but also the Education Ministry’s own expert Dorner Committee Report of 2009 that recommended government funding for inclusion of children with disabilities in the general education system.
Inclusion is based on the belief that all pupils – with and without disabilities – should learn together in general education classrooms. Keeping children in their neighborhood schools is the first step in the process. I have met with lawyers from Bizchut, the Israel Center for Human Rights for People with Disabilities, who work with families of children with disabilities. These families describe how their children have to travel hours each day to and from special-education schools to receive the services and accommodations they need. Why aren’t such services and accommodations available in their own local schools? Regardless of how a child may walk, hear, see, talk or think, shouldn’t that child be able to attend his or her local school, just like children without disabilities? A coalition organized by Bizchut of teachers, parents, adults with disabilities, and academics all agree and therefore oppose the government’s bill. Support for pupils in general education system is also required by international law.
Israel ratified the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2012. That means that Israel must do what it says. Article 24 of the CRPD requires Israel to ensure the right of all children with disabilities to receive the individual support and accommodations they may need in the general education system. Forcing children to receive services only in special-education settings is discrimination, prohibited by the CRPD. The CRPD Committee also requires States Parties, including Israel, to “redefine budgetary allocations for education, including by transferring part of their budgets to the development of inclusive education.” Israel, therefore, is prohibited from decreasing or reallocating funding that interferes with inclusive education. Yet the proposed law does just that.
Not only is Israel ignoring its international legal obligations, it also fails to acknowledge that Israel has the highest number of students in special education of any country with which Israel compares itself. In the United States, as of 2013, at least 95% of students with disabilities aged six to 21 attend regular schools, with only 3% attending separate schools, according to the US Department of Education. In England, inclusion in regular classrooms is also preferred for children with disabilities, with more than 90% of the two million pupils with disabilities attending regular schools, and only 1% of the school population attending special schools. And, in the EU, generally, 97% of pupils in compulsory education attend mainstream schools, with only 2.3% educated in either special schools or a separate classes in mainstream schools.
In Israel, it is the exact opposite. In the 2017-18 academic year, only 60% of children with disabilities (52% with mild disabilities and 8% with severe disabilities) receive education in inclusive settings. A total of 20% of children with disabilities attended separate schools and 20% attended separate programs in regular schools, for a total of 40% of pupils in segregated settings. That number is significantly higher than the number of children in special education in the US, England, and other EU and OECD countries.
Why are so many countries (other than Israel) working so hard to promote inclusion over segregation? Because inclusion works. It is good for students with and without disabilities. Research has found that students with disabilities who are in inclusive classrooms do better academically and socially; they achieve higher scores in reading, writing, and mathematics than those who are taught in segregated settings, and that “these advantages continued into adult life.” Research also shows that inclusive education is good for students without disabilities; they do better academically and socially when instruction is provided in classrooms that include students with disabilities. A large North American study confirmed recently that regular classrooms and not special-education classrooms or schools are the best educational settings for students with and without disabilities.
Inclusion is also cost effective. OECD countries report that the average cost of educating students with special educational needs in segregated placements is as much as seven to nine times higher than educating them in general classrooms. Moreover, separate schools and programs for students with disabilities are inefficient since with “multiple systems of education administration, organizational structures and services… special schools are a financially unrealistic option.”
But rather than follow international law and best educational practices which promote inclusion and not segregation, the Israeli government has introduced a law that will deprive thousands of children with disabilities of the services and accommodations they may now receive or could receive in their local schools by forcing their parents to “choose” between sending their children to their local schools without services or to special-education schools, where additional services and accommodations may (or may not) be provided. That is no choice at all. Without affirming a commitment to inclusion and providing the resources necessary to support pupils with disabilities and their teachers in the general education system, Israel is contravening its legal obligations as well as international trends. It is also hurting children. If the Education Ministry truly supports all pupils, as it says it does, it will withdraw its proposed law and try again.
Professor Kanter is a 2017-18 Lady Davis Fellow at Hebrew University Faculty of Law and Professor of Law at Syracuse University College of Law, New York.