The List


If you've ever asked the IRS a tax question or stood in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, you know how hard it can be to get something you want from the government. It can be even harder to turn down something you don't want.

That, at least, has been our experience with our daughter and New York City's Committee on Special Education (CSE). My wife, Michele, and I adopted Francine when she was 3, after her mother died in a fire. Francine, who had suffered smoke inhalation, spent several months at a rehabilitation center.

By the time she came to live with us, you could hardly tell by observing or interacting with her that she had been through a terrible trauma. But tests showed her skills were lagging, so her doctor and therapists sent her files over to the CSE.

The CSE assigned Francine a "special education itinerant teacher," who comes to our apartment and works with her on reading and math skills. Jennifer is a great teacher, and Francine, who will turn 5 in May, is very fond of her. But since Francine has been testing at or above her age level for some time now, it's not exactly clear why we should be receiving Jennifer's services at taxpayers' expense, under a program intended for children with disabilities.

In light of Francine's progress, Jennifer recommended cutting back her visits from twice to once a week for the rest of the year and then discontinuing services. Like us, she thought special education money would be better used to help kids with serious learning problems.

Around this time, we received an "appointment letter" from the school district saying Francine should come to the CSE's offices for testing. Francine took an "educational evaluation" test and did well (especially considering that it was late afternoon and they'd kept us waiting for almost an hour).

I had assumed the test was related to the reduction in hours that Jennifer was proposing. But afterward I learned it was part of the evaluation process for the following year and that the CSE expected us to come back twice more, for a psychological examination and a "social history" interview.

When I explained that we were not requesting services for next year, the man in charge said we still needed to come back and "complete the process." I said I saw no reason to waste two more afternoons when we already knew that we didn't want any more services.

Michele called the CSE later the same day to ask if we were supposed to send someone a letter or sign a form expressing our wishes. They never returned her call.

About a month later, after we received a notice telling us to bring Francine in for more testing, Michele called the CSE again. The official who answered the phone said we had to complete the evaluation process "because otherwise we won't know whether or not she needs services."

"We've already decided that she doesn't," Michele said.

"You've decided that she doesn't?" he said, astounded. If Francine doesn't come in for more appointments, he warned, "we can't take her off our list."

"Why do we need to get her off the list?"

"That's the rule."

"Whose rule is it?" Silence. "What are the practical implications if we don't complete the evaluation?"

"She will stay in the system as someone who needs services, and no school will accept her."

Michele noted that Francine is in private school, that we'll be moving in a year, and that it was unlikely Francine would ever attend a public school in New York State. Obviously irritated, the man told Michele to write a letter to his boss, and then he hung up.

As this conversation suggests, our difficulty in getting Francine off The List is partly due to the arrogance of bureaucrats who are accustomed to telling parents what's good for their kids. But the perverse incentives of taxpayer funding are also at work.

Both the school district and the agencies with which it contracts have an interest in "serving" as many kids as possible. The more students they have on The List, the bigger their budgets. In this context, anyone who has different priorities is perceived as a troublemaker.

We are sending the CSE a letter, and we've asked Jennifer to write one too. Then we'll wait for our next appointment notice.