Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

'Reining In' Special Education: Constructions of "Special Education" in New York Times Editorials, 1975-2004

Nancy Rice
Assistant Professor
Department of Exceptional Education
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
P.O. Box 413
Milwaukee, WI 53201
E-mail: nerice@uwm.edu


The media claim to speak with authority on educational issues and thus play a major role in the construction of public messages about special education. Discursive constructions of "special education" portray the landscape of possibilities within which much of the public comes to understand what special education is, influencing their understanding and judgment of it. The purpose of this paper is to analyze public constructions of "special education" using editorials published in The New York Times from 1975-2004. Using critical discourse analysis, this paper reveals themes developed over time as well as the ways language is used to construct a particular view of "special education." Alternative discourses are suggested to counter the hegemonic presentations by the Times editors.

Keywords: Special Education, Media, Discourse Analysis


Special education has been public policy for a generation now. As we mark the 30-year anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, it seems reasonable to ask: What are public discourses of "special education"? The term "special education" is a symbolic construction that evokes different images for different people: individually designed instruction for identified students, the struggle for the politics of recognition, a civil right, or an obligation that society has to its "most vulnerable" members.

There is not one meaning, nor one correct interpretation of "special education." Lee (1992) wrote that categories of classification "are not objective, ready-made, inherent properties of the external world but are subject to processes of perception and interpretation" (p. 102). However, some interpretations are more widely circulated than others. When these become dominant, they shape a particular view of reality; alternative discourses are often marginalized or dismissed in the face of these taken-for-granted understandings.

This social constructionist view of how language is used to create a public perception of special education is undergirded by the Foucauldian view that language, knowledge and power are inextricably interwoven at the level of discourse (Foucault, 1977). As Fairclough (1989) explains, "[T]he exercise of power, in modern society, is increasingly achieved through ideology, and more particularly through the ideological workings of language" (p. 2). The workings of ideology via language are often invisible since they are based on "common-sense" assumptions of which people are often not aware. Additionally, relations of power are entrenched through the workings of language. The ways in which language is used by those in power can serve the ideological purpose of legitimizing existing social relations. Conversely, understanding the ways in which linguistic constructions contribute to material oppression can help to disrupt the status quo.

The purpose of this article is to consider the ways in which public discourse is implicated in constructing and sustaining a 'system of belief' about the nature of social reality. Specifically, it examines how selected editorials from the New York Times have discursively re/produced social policy, social relations, and public "knowledge" about "special education."

Why Editorials?

I chose to analyze editorials because they are a form of mass media that provide opinion on events. I selected the New York Times because the editorials regularly comment on the local New York City school system, yet the paper has a wide readership. It is the third largest newspaper in the United States, with over 1 million paper copies sold daily ("Top 100," 2003).

One former New York Times editor said that the purpose of the editorial page was to provide "constructive, responsible criticism of every aspect of public affairs" (Stonecipher, 1990, p. 23). However, the clear aim of editorials is to persuade readers to view events in particular ways. Editors write from an "omniscient" position and "presume to forward truths from a position of authority" (Nichols, 1991, p. 2).

I do not mean to suggest that this analysis of editorials reveals the public construction of special education. Indeed, the constructionist view holds that competing discourses are always available. Readers may often draw on these alternative discourses to resist dominant views. However, the viewpoint analyzed here does represent a dominant, mainstream perspective on special education in American society.

The remainder of this article is divided into four sections. The first of these sections discusses the work of others who have sought to understand the role of representation, ideology, and discourse in public discussions of social policy more broadly, and in education specifically. In the subsequent section, I describe editorial selection and analysis, followed by the actual analysis. Finally, I suggest alternative discourses that advocate understanding disability in more complex, multi-faceted ways, thereby countering the restrictions imposed by hegemonic discourses.

Discourse Analysis and Social and Educational Policy

A number of authors have analyzed public presentations of social and educational policies and have found patterns in these constructions. Edelman (1988), for instance, noted that social issues such as welfare are often presented in cycles of threat/reassurance. Social issues are often cast as dangerous or menacing, giving way to reassurances of competent handling of the problem. Edelman noted, "For governments and for aspirants to leadership it is...important both that people become anxious about their security and that their anxiety be assuaged, through never completely so" (1988, p. 5). Like Edelmann's understanding of welfare, I believe that special education is often positioned as a threat to public resources.

Edelman (1977; 1988) further noted that social issues that focus on less powerful members of society create ambivalence for many members of the general public. While there is general acknowledgement and acceptance of societal responsibility to aid those who are "legitimately" poor or disabled, there is also a strong sense of wanting to ensure that those who do not need public assistance do not receive it. For those who do require assistance, the discussion centers on what the limits will be, rather than what the needs are. Discursive constructions that deal with social issues, including special education, often present tensions that mirror the sense of obligation, the desire to help, and the suspicion surrounding those who are "helped." These conflicts both reflect and support the range of feelings of a diverse population toward social policies.

Hastings (1998) conducted a critical discourse analysis of a public policy document regarding the redevelopment of urban areas in Scotland. Her analysis showed linguistic choices, strategies, and themes that presented a narrative of "decline and renewal...Moreover, it demonstrate[d] how the use of language [was] involved in making the pathological explanation of [urban] decline credible to the reader" (p. 198). This finding, in turn, suggests remedies that focus on individual pathology, rather than on structural inequities.

Ferri and Connor (2005) also showed how existing power structures were actively protected through discourse in mass media. They compared editorials and political cartoons from national and southern newspapers, written during the post-Brown v. Board of Education Era (1954-1956) and those written from 1987-2002 that focused on inclusive educational policy for students with disabilities. Editorials and letters to the editor called for foot-dragging and, in some cases, were openly hostile toward public policies that threatened the status quo. Their analyses of editorials showed that newspapers promoted "gradualism" in terms of implementation of both Brown and IDEA. Traditionally, these landmark decisions have been heralded and linked for their progressive stance toward civil rights for historically marginalized groups. Ferri and Connor persuasively argue, however, that the slow implementation of these laws has actually served to resegregate students of color and students with disabilities into a separate educational system.

Editorial Selection and Analysis

In the following section, I discuss editorials focused on special education and analyze ways in which the same mechanisms outlined in the previous section contribute to discursive formations of the field.

Data Collection

I used the Lexis-Nexus database to search for editorials in the New York Times between January 1, 1975 and December 31, 2004. The search engine allows for three search terms to be entered at once. Two searches were conducted. The first search utilized the following search terms: "handicapped students" OR "special education" AND "editorial." The second search included the terms "disabled students" OR "mainstreaming" AND "editorial." The searches returned news summaries, letters to the editor, news articles and editorials where special education was simply mentioned. These were eliminated prior to analysis. The searches also had overlaps. Twenty-three editorials that focused on special education were analyzed for this article, and are listed in the Appendix.

Data Analysis

Critical discourse analysis (CDA) focuses on the ways in which ideas are conveyed, often unnoticeably, through language (Fairclough, 1989; 1995a). CDA pays particular attention to how power is manifested and circulated, its relationship to ideology, and how these phenomena influence social relations. Within CDA, texts are a "bridge" between individuals and institutions, between the micro- and macro- aspects of social interaction. CDA posits that the analysis of texts can show the connections between the two: that is, how public discourse filters into interpersonal discourse and vice versa (Fairclough, 1989, 1995a; 1995b). The goal of CDA is to make the unnoticed visible through analysis and interpretation. Thus, CDA consists of analysis of lexical choices, implied assumptions, premises and conclusions of the authors, rhetorical constructions, comparisons employed, and omissions. I utilized these aspects of CDA in my analysis of the editorials.

Editorial Analysis

In this section, I illustrate and discuss prevalent themes that emerged from my analysis of the data. These are: Discourses of Fear, Discourses of Reform, Rhetoric of "Fairness," Encouraging Ambivalence, and Shifts over Time.

Discourses of Fear

The most notable construction of special education is as a budget item. The editorials consistently sound the alarm bell regarding the costs of "special education." Metaphors in editorial titles used to describe the cost or funding of the federal program include "Red Ink," "Spiral"[ing out of control], a "Nightmare," and a "Battle" (see Appendix). Closely tied to this is the presentation of special education as a "troubled" system.

Special education and the need for cost containment

The editorials are packed with the language of cost. Some examples include:

  • "the ultimate costs...will run into many millions" ("The Schools," 1980)
  • "the cost of special education for the handicapped was largely responsible for the budgetary crisis that plagued the Board of Education" ("The Schools," 1980)
  • "soaring cost" ("How Much,"1982)
  • "mindboggling costs that would starve other public services" ("How Much," 1982)
  • "the fastest-growing budget item ("The Chancellor's,"1983)
  • "Special education generally is getting out of hand" ("The Chancellor's," 1983)
  • "Something fundamental needs to be done to cap the growth of the special education program" ("The Chancellor's," 1983)
  • "tame the alarming expansion" ("Special Bargain," 1985)
  • "New York's special education costs are growing at a bankrupting pace" ("Special Education Nightmare," 1996)
  • "in danger of running out of control" ("Improving Preschool," 1996)
  • "devours a huge share of the school budget" ("A Meaningful," 1996)
  • "eats up a quarter of New York City's education budget" ("Remaking Special Education," 1998)

Presentations such as these create anxiety regarding this segment of the educational system. A focus on individual needs or how to empower students or any other aspect of special education is quickly trumped by discussions of cost containment. The costs of special education are positioned as causal: "the special education program" is presented as the reason for runaway budgets. Nominalization–using a noun on which to hang the "problem" while erasing active agents (Fairclough, 1989; Thompson, 1990)–allows the writers to distance themselves from placing blame directly onto individuals and their families. However, the editors nonetheless participate in circulating a hegemonic discourse that perpetuates resentment for a program that takes "more than its share" of public funds.

Nominalization also masks other realities. For instance, cost and cost-containment could be applied to other areas of public life: the military, corporate tax incentives and a tax structure that supports those earning the majority of the world's wealth, and even other educational initiatives such as technology or the increased costs of testing mandated by NCLB. However, these are not part of the public discussion promoted by editorials. With respect to education, the narrative of "scarcity of public funding" renders invisible the processes by which public funds are distributed. It erases the possibility that other sources of public funding could be made available in order to create quality education for all students.

The social "reality" created by a discourse of cost containment of the special education system is that it must be brought under control. Options for other sources of public funding are not mentioned or even alluded to as topics for public debate, creating the perception that these areas are fixed, making any form of discussion appear irrelevant. The "problem" is special education.

Special education as a "troubled" system

In addition to a potentially uncontrollable budget item, special education is presented as a troubled system. Examples of this construction include the following:

  • "The program has become a dumping ground for all sorts of students who are deemed, rightly or wrongly, difficult to handle in the regular classroom" ("Reforming Special Education," 1995)
  • "Special education "condemn[s] most of its students to isolation and failure" ("Fresh Thinking," 1996)
  • "...the program fails to educate those in its charge. Statewide, only 20% of the children who enter special education ever return to regular classes. Most of the rest fail to graduate" ("Fresh Thinking," 1996)
  • "...troubled program for disabled children that eats up a quarter of New York City's education budget, graduates few of its students and has come under Federal scrutiny for potential violations of civil rights laws" ("Remaking Special Education," 1998)
  • "...unwieldy system within-a-system that currently runs itself, accountable to almost no one" ("Remaking Special Education," 1998)

In these instances, special education is presented as an ineffective system that creates an "alarming" situation that is clearly in need of solutions. These descriptions work hand in hand with the previous topic of out-of-control costs: "special education" is expensive as well as ineffective, and therefore a problem that needs to be fixed.

Edelman (1988) writes, "Perceptions of threats and of efforts to overcome them will maintain social tension, anxiety, and continued susceptibility to verbal cues that help legitimize government policies regardless of their effectiveness" (p. 28). Presentations of special education as expensive and unproductive are viewed as threats to the budget and thus to the public as a whole. Suggestions as to improvement are thus welcomed by the public, who perceive the situation as too complex and overwhelming for individuals to handle without government intervention. Discourses of reform are a welcome reprieve from news about the "troubled" system.

Discourses of Reform

Closely tied to the out-of-control budget narrative and the "troubled system" is a discourse of improvement of special education. Looking at the titles of the editorials, a need for improvement via reform is evident throughout the 1990s. During that decade, "special education" is presented as in need of "Reform," (twice) "Special Care," "Fresh Thinking," a "Warning" and "Remaking." There were also reports on incremental improvements: "A Meaningful Budget" and "Progress" (see Appendix).

"Remaking" the System

The editorials have consistently favored three reform strategies: keeping students in general education classes and providing additional supports there, changing funding formulas so there is more flexibility to provide supports in general education classrooms, and increased accountability for special education professionals. In the first suggested strategy, for instance, the editors wrote,

The best way to rein in special education is to improve the supportive services for troubled students in regular classes...Only when class sizes are reduced in the lower grades and more support is available for children with difficulties in regular classes will parents and teachers stop relying on special education so automatically ("Special Education Spiral," 1984).

In the second strategy, editors have favored "greater flexibility in state funding formulas so that schools could use the money both to enrich regular instruction for the improvement of all students and to give extra help to those who might otherwise be placed in special classes" ("Reforming Special Education," 1995). In 1998 the editors wrote, "The best response is to...bolster...mainstream education[,]...removing the financial incentives for special-ed" ("A Special-Ed Warning," 1998).

In the third instance, the editors have supported accountability: "[T]he impulse to make special-education workers accountable to both school principals and district superintendents is basically sound" ("Remaking Special Education," 1998). In addition, the same editorial stated, "The task force plan would put [committees] under the authority of principals and local superintendents, who would have more control over what special-education workers actually do" ("Remaking Special Education," 1998).

Suggestions to restructure and reform the expensive, but troubled, system repeatedly create a sense that the situation is being taken care of. As long as the problem is being worked on, the public has a sense that the situation won't be allowed to "spiral" out of control. However, as always, the workings of ideology are in play. The discourses of reform illustrate what Edelman (1988) called "incrementalism." He explains:

A focus upon marginal change masks whatever underlies the increments and therefore what is most significant about a political situation....[B]oth officials and the public who are attentive to the increments perceive these as the core of the issue while remaining largely oblivious to whatever problems underlie the increments (p. 37).

In the case of these editorials, the focus is on where students are placed, how funding works and who reports to whom. More fundamental issues are not addressed. The existence of separate spheres of education, the disproportionate number of students of color in special education, the silencing of people with disabilities in designing services, the creation of subjectivities that reinforce entitlement for nondisabled students and marginalization for disabled students, and the distribution of funds mentioned earlier are obscured by the focus on incrementalism.

Structuring Social Relations

Social relations are also reproduced within the discursive system of reform. The individuals who are presented as "having a plan" are politicians. While one might expect other voices to participate in the public arena of reforming education, these are conspicuously absent. Parents and special education advocates are mentioned, albeit infrequently, in the editorial opinions. For instance,

  • "Special education, bolstered by court mandates and vocal parent advocates, has been stubbornly resistant to reform" ("Reforming Special Education," 1995)
  • "Restructuring the system...will require serious thought and careful coordination among school systems, local governments and the State Legislature. An obvious first step is to limit the influence of the special education lobby." ("The Special Education Nightmare," 1996)
  • "[T]he Legislature needs to take a leading role in restructuring the system. That means standing up to the special education lobby" ("The Special Education Nightmare," 1996)

The social relations that are reinforced via these presentations of reform reinforce the idea that the "major players" should be those who are already in power: "school systems, local governments and the State Legislature." Public discussion on the issue of how to reform public education is not encouraged. Parents and other advocates for students with disabilities, according to the editorials, should "obviously" have their "influence limited."

This is a traditional use of power over those who are in the position of "beneficiary." Because they do not hold the purse strings, those who are in a position of receiving public monies are often not viewed as having an equal say in how their services are delivered. Thus are social relations of power retrenched. Though only a few examples of such overt silencing exist, the majority of the "presentations" of other voices are exclusions, making erasure of less powerful citizens in the public sphere seem "natural."

Rhetoric of "Fairness"

Curiously, while inequitable relations of power are reinforced, a rhetoric of fairness is utilized in the editorials to establish the importance of "same treatment" for those with and without disability labels.

Fairness as "Sameness"

In 1991 the editors wrote "...tight budgets are forcing school districts to educate all children, including the handicapped, more efficiently...At a time when shrinking budgets will likely force an increase in the size of regular classes, it seems unfair to exempt the handicapped from sharing the pain" ("Sharing the Pain," 1991). The unspoken definition of "fairness" in play here is one of "sameness." If students without disabilities are going to have to tighten the belt, so must students with disabilities.

On the face of it, this seems reasonable. However, specifics must be considered. Cutting budgets for students without disabilities may mean larger class sizes or delaying the purchase of brand-new textbooks or computers. For students with disabilities, similar reductions in funding could result in larger class sizes, which may disproportionately impact some students (the latter is what the editors were advocating in this editorial). In this context, "fairness" is not a synonym for "the same amount." Equating the needs of two groups of students, one that by definition has more or different needs, does not accurately or justly represent the interests of students with disabilities.

When referring to the budget, editors regularly presented information such as the following: "special education comprises 12% of the school population, but it consumes 23% of the school system's $4 billion budget" ("Special Bargain," 1985); "The budget documents confirm that special education eats up about 25 percent of total spending, or $2 billion, while educating just 130,000 of the system's 1.1 million students. New York City spends more than $21,000 for each full-time special education student, versus about $6,200 for students in regular classes" ("A Meaningful Budget" 1996).

The presentation of these specific numbers and percentages seems objective and straightforward. However, the numbers presented are used to make an argument: namely, that special education is spending more than its due: it services "just" 12% of the school population but "eats up" 25% of the cost. These figures are the evidence presented to suggest that costs should be reined in. Such an argument is predicated on the idea that until the percentage of students served is brought closer to the percentage of the budget expended, cost-cutting measures and reforms must continue.

As in the example above, the definition of "fairness" that is implicitly utilized is "sameness." Alternate definitions of equity and fairness, particularly for historically underprivileged groups, have to do with creating a level playing field rather than providing everyone with the same resources. For instance, some individuals come to school with skills, attitudes and habits (cultural capital) that closely resemble the expectations of school, and thus these students are more likely to succeed. Other students may require more resources in order to succeed at the same levels. Similarly, students with disabilities may have needs not required by the majority of nondisabled students in order to access the same information and participate meaningfully. Social equality and thus "fairness" do not necessarily equal same treatment, as culturally relevant teaching, affirmative action, and Head Start have shown us.

"Us" vs. "Them"

Early presentations of special education set students with disabilities up against other children. The early view and regular repetition of this perspective, coupled with the other discourses already mentioned, sets "special education" up for suspicion and resentment. In this narrative, education is a zero-sum game, with "winners" and "losers": the "contest" being between special and general education students.

In 1980 the editors commented on a Federal Appeals Court decision. The case had to do with providing a sign language interpreter for a deaf student, Amy Rowley. The Appeals Court ruled in Amy's favor, requiring a sign-language interpreter for her in school. The editors wrote: "The trend...is alarmingly clear. A humane Federal benefit is turning into a constitutional right and into a state and local obligation, with no sign that the Federal Government means to pay for what it decrees" ("Going Wrong" 1980).

Underlying this presentation is a discourse of charity for those who are less fortunate. While education for nondisabled children is a constitutional right, the presentation here suggests that disabled students were granted an education as an act of benevolence; as such, education is not a "given" constitutional right for students with disabilities, but a "humane" Federal benefit. Now, according to the editors, people with disabilities are taking this kindness and turning it into an obligation.

Also underlying this presentation of special education is a structuring of social relations: People with disabilities are meant to be recipients of a "humane Federal benefit," not people who demand a constitutional right to education. This demand, in turn, will have an impact on what "we"--signaling the nondisabled majority--will be required to pay. Because the federal government is not paying its share (which is mentioned, but not challenged), this leaves the "burden" to local governments. The editors explain that local governments

must balance the needs of the handicapped against the compelling claims of all children, including medically sound youngsters who nonetheless have problems with learning, alienated youngsters who drop out, high school students who are ill-prepared for jobs. They, too, could use individual attention, small classes, more guidance, better textbooks ("Going Wrong," 1980).

This type of comparison is based on unstated assumptions of "fairness" as "sameness" as described above. The authors argue that other students have needs, too. It would be "unfair" to give "too much" to students with disabilities when there are other students who also have needs.

A tension is created by positioning students with disabilities against students who have other needs. This both constrains the discussion of public funding to a fight between "general" and "special" education students and perpetuates the illusion that no other options for funding can and/or should be made available. The editors conclude:

It is only right to remedy a pattern of neglect. But it is perverse for Congress and the courts to define an "appropriate" education only for the handicapped and to write rules that result in the deprivation of other children...It is no favor to the handicapped to make them the beneficiaries of unique rhetorical rights and the object of local resentment ("Going Wrong," 1980).

The Appeals Court decision suggested equality of educational opportunity for Amy Rowley and other students with disabilities. The Appeals Court decision itself does not "result in deprivation of other children." Nor does the decision itself make students with disabilities "the beneficiaries of unique rhetorical rights and the object of local resentment." This attribution of cause suggests an inevitability as to the effects of the decision. It also suggests to readers how they might respond to the decision. Such a suggestion encourages, rather than repudiates, resentment. This discourse of "us vs. them" intersects with the scarcity of public funding narrative: the presentations suggest a need for protection against those who might reduce the total monies to which nondisabled students appear to be (more) entitled.

Promoting Ambivalence

Ambivalence regarding "special education" is evident throughout the editorials examined. There is a "yes, but..." character to the acceptance of "special education." The nondisabled majority, personified by the Times editors, seems to be saying, "Yes, 'we' will accept this as 'our' responsibility, but not if it is going to significantly impact the status quo." Examples of this ambivalence include (all italics are mine):

  • "Special public education may well be the best use for the money that Congress required to be spent. It is dismaying,however, that no one demanded some proof or demonstration of its relative importance ("The Schools," 1980)
  • "It is only right to remedy a pattern of neglect. But it is perverse for Congress and the courts to define an "appropriate" education only for the handicapped and to write rules that result in the deprivation of other children" ("Going Wrong," 1980)
  • "It may seem mean-spirited for Frank Macchiarola, the Chancellor of New York City's schools, to call for a slowdown in expansion of special programs for handicapped children. But in fact he makes a sensible point" ("Breathing Room," 1982)
  • "The Supreme Court's decision that the Peekskill school district need not supply a deaf fourth-grader with a sign-language interpreter may seem cold-hearted. But by setting a limit on public responsibility, it furthers fair education policy" ("How Much," 1982)
  • "The program's aims are laudable, but its increasing cost is alarming" ("The Chancellor's," 1983)
  • "From a legal and humane standpoint, it is the right outcome. Children should not be isolated or their education limited because of a disability. But the decision also raises serious concerns. As a practical matter, the expansive ruling will impose new financial burdens on local school districts already struggling with the mounting costs of special-education mandates" ("The Court,"1999)

As used above, the adverb "however" can be defined as "nevertheless" (Morris, 1979, p. 639); the conjunction "but" is used in the sense of "nevertheless" and "on the other hand" (Morris, 1979, p. 180). The use of these terms conveys uncertainty regarding the degree of conviction with which to support special education as public policy. Statements of support are laced with discourses of fear. In this way, the editors belie a marked ambivalence regarding their support of special education. The editorials guide the reading public toward acceptance of the fact that public policy does not do as much for citizens with disabilities as it could, helping to assuage the guilt that accompanies ambivalence.

Shifts Over Time

While editorials still contain themes of ambivalence, a rhetoric of fairness, and discourses of fear and reform, in recent years they have also addressed the lack of federal funding allocated to students with disabilities. In addition, a comparison of one older and one more recent editorial shows a considerable shift in support of the goals of the now-institutionalized program of special education.

Calls for Increased Federal Funding

In the past, editors have mentioned that the federal government reneged on its commitment to students with disabilities. In recent years, this issue is positioned as more of a call to action. While not strident, the statements are more assertive than in the past and they provide a rationale for federal funding:

  • "Educating disabled youngsters is a national obligation. The expense should be borne by the nation as a whole, not imposed haphazardly on states or financially strapped districts that happen to serve a large number of disabled students" ("The Court," 1999)
  • "Congress is also right to argue that the federal government must pay its fair share to educate the nation's most vulnerable children" ("The Battle," 2001)

While these are not challenges to the status quo, the statements nonetheless go beyond the hand-wringing of the federal government not "paying its share" and beyond blaming students with disabilities for a shortage of resources.

From Proving Importance to Accountability

In 1980, four-and-a-half years after passage of the legislation, the first editorial published on special education appears, and illustrates the unsupportive position of the editors. They wrote: "Special public education may well be the best use for the money that Congress required to be spent. It is dismaying, however, that no one demanded some proof or demonstration of its relative importance" ("The Schools," 1980).

A more recent editorial in 2004 supports the provisions of the NCLB legislation, which mandates testing of all students. Students with disabilities had routinely been excluded from state testing. Some suggested that this practice be continued. The editors strongly disagree with this view. They wrote:

A hard-core faction of school administrators and legislators argues that the six million children who receive special education services under federal law will never catch up and should be exempted from higher standards. Congress has thus far rejected this argument and must continue to do so ("Leaving Some," 2004).

The editors support the accountability measures in NCLB. They argued: "Critics of No Child Left Behind want to abandon disabled children by counting them out of the push for higher standards. The better solution is for well-trained teachers to help them succeed" ("Leaving Some," 2004).

A shift in support of students with disabilities seems evident. However, some critics of NCLB have argued that the push for "higher standards" amounts to more rhetoric than effective action. NCLB could be classified as the newest discourse of reform, positioned to improve the "troubled" special education system.

The 24-year span between the first editorial published on special education and the most recent one analyzed for this study shows a considerable shift in attitudes toward educating students with disabilities. The initial editorial ("The Schools," 1980) questioned whether educating students with disabilities was a worthwhile undertaking, while the 2004 opinion unequivocally supports high standards and accountability with regard to educating disabled students.

Conclusion: Keeping Representation Open

The past three decades of New York Times editorials have cast special education as a policy to be feared for its potential as a parasitical system that will likely deplete resources for nondisabled students and continue to be a chronic failure, in spite of reform efforts. According to the editorials, the system, which provides services only to students with disability labels, raises questions regarding "fairness." In spite of all of this, there is a grudging acceptance of public responsibility toward educating children with disabilities.

Consistently over the past three decades, the editorials have embraced incremental change and have downplayed, ignored and therefore neglected other issues, such as the complexity of reforming public education, the separate spheres of general and special education, the context in which large numbers of students of color are referred for and identified as "disabled," perspectives of parents of children with disabilities; the perspectives of the disability rights community, and critics of the touted "reform" efforts.

Recent discussions have not questioned that people with disabilities need prove their worthiness as children who have a right to public education, as was suggested 24 years ago. The editors uncritically support the most recent federal mandate, focused on high standards and accountability.

The themes found in the editorials are often not challenged, thus increasing their hegemony. However, alternative discourses are available. One purpose of analyzing discursive constructions is to see how other ways of viewing an issue have been closed off. Hall (1997) writes,

Symbolic power operates in representation, an attempt to naturalize the meaning so that we can't have...any other way of thinking, any other access to knowledge, about what is being told us about the world but the way in which it is being interpreted; ...therefore an attempt to keep representation open is a way of constantly wanting new kinds of knowledges to be produced in the world, new kinds of subjectivities to be explored, and new dimensions of meaning which have not been foreclosed by the systems of power which are in operation (p. 22, italics mine).

Critical discourse analysis allows for a consideration of alternative and other possible discourses and helps to "keep representation open" (Hall, 1997 p. 22). Frameworks of participation, citizenship (Kliewer, 1998), civil rights (Biklen, 1992), social justice, and empowerment and self-determination (Charlton, 1998) were omitted by the editors in their presentations of special education.

Use of any of these frameworks as a starting point for thinking about "special education" would create a qualitatively different type of conversation from those presented in the editorials. For example, a discussion of special education and equal participation would center the needs of students whose participation is currently limited. This, in turn, might turn to an analysis of the structures that are in place that limit participation for students. Such structures might be changed to enable a wider range of students to have a meaningful role in the school community.

The capacity of mass media to influence public discourse continues to grow. Editorials participate in what Herman and Chomsky (1988) referred to as "manufacturing consent" — that is, presenting ubiquitous frames within which social inequities and "realities" seem natural and inevitable. A discursive approach to mass media presentations of "special education" can identify what knowledge is produced and how it is produced through language use. Such analyses provide the opportunity to both question and counter specific aspects of taken-for-granted knowledge about "special education."


The author would like to thank the three editors for their insight, suggestions, and support in preparing this manuscript for publication.


The battle over special education. (2001, December 12) New York Times, p. A30. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Biklen, D. (1992). Schooling without labels. New York: Teachers College Press.

Breathing room for special education. (1982, April 3). New York Times, p. A24. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

The chancellor's red ink. (1983, December 17). New York Times, p. A22. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Charlton, J. (1998). Nothing about us without us: Disability, oppression and empowerment. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The court and disabled students. (1999, March 15). New York Times, p. A18. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

The duty to disabled children. (1984, July 11). New York Times, p. A24. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Edelman, M. (1977). Political language: Words that succeed and policies that fail. New York: Academic Press.

Edelman, M. (1988). Constructing the political spectacle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fairclough, N. (1989). Language and power. New York: Longman.

Fairclough, N. (1995a). Critical discourse analysis. New York: Longman.

Fairclough, N. (1995b). Media discourse. New York: E. Arnold.

Fairness in special education. (1997, June 7). New York Times, p. A18.

Ferri, B. A. & Connor, D. J. (2005). Tools of exclusion: Race, disability and (re)segregation. Teachers College Record, 107 (3), 453-474.

Foucault, M. (1977/1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Fresh thinking on special education. (1996, November 26).New York Times, p. A20. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Going wrong with handicapped rights. (1980, July 19).New York Times, p. A16. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Hall, S. (1997). Representation & the media. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation.

Hastings, A. (1998). Connecting linguistic structures and social practices: A discursive approach to social policy analysis. Journal of Social Policy, 27, 191-211. Retrieved January 2005 from the EBSCOhost database.

Herman, E. & Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. New York: Pantheon.

How much for the handicapped? (1982, July 3). New York Times, p. A20. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Improving preschool special education. (1996, August 7). New York Times, p. A16. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Kliewer, C. (1998). Schooling children with Down syndrome: Toward an understanding of possibility. New York: Teachers College Press.

Leaving some children behind. (2004, January 27). New York Times, p. A22. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Lee, D. (1992). Competing discourses: Perspective and ideology in language. New York: Addison Wesley.

A meaningful school budget — at last. (1996, November 22).New York Times, p. A30. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Morris. W. (1979). (Ed.) The American heritage dictionary of the English language. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Nichols, B. (1991). Representing reality: Issues and concepts in documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Progress in special education. (2001, May 1). New York Times, p. A22. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Reforming special education. (1995, May 26). New York Times, p. A26. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Reforming special education. (1999, August 4). New York Times, p. A18. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Remaking special education" (1998, June 10). New York Times, p. A28. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

The schools and the handicapped. (1980, January 8). New York Times, p. A18. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Sharing the pain. (1991, March 29). New York Times, p. A22. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Special bargain for special ed. (1985, April 30). New York Times, p. A30. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Special care for special education" (1996, November 9). New York Times, p. A22. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

A special-ed warning for New York. (1998, December 2). New York Times, p. A26. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

The special education nightmare. (1996, June 24). New York Times, p. A14. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

The special education spiral. (1984, January 26). New York Times, p. A22. Retrieved December 2004 from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Stonecipher, H. (1990). Editorial and persuasive writing: Opinion functions of the news media.2nd ed. Mamaroneck, NY: Communication Arts Books.

Thompson, J. (1990). Ideology and modern culture: Critical social theory in the era of mass communication. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Top 100 daily newspapers in the United States.(2003, September 30). http://www.infoplease.com/ipea/A0004420.html

Appendix: New York Times Editorials Analyzed, 1975 - 2004

Date Title
January 8, 1980 Schools and the Handicapped
July 19, 1980 Going Wrong with Handicapped Rights
April 3, 1982 Breathing Room for Special Education
July 3, 1982 How Much for the Handicapped?
December 17, 1983 The Chancellor's Red Ink
January 26, 1984 The Special Education Spiral
July 11, 1984 The Duty to Disabled Children
April 30, 1985 Special Bargain for Special Ed
March 29, 1991 Sharing the Pain
May 26, 1995 Reforming Special Education
June 24, 1996 The Special Education Nightmare
August 7, 1996 Improving Preschool Special Education
November 9, 1996 Special Care for Special Education
November 22, 1996 A Meaningful School Budget - At Last
November 26, 1996 Fresh Thinking on Special Education
June 7, 1997 Fairness in Special Education
June 10, 1998 Remaking Special Education
December 2, 1998 A Special-Ed Warning for New York
March 15, 1999 The Court and Disabled Students
August 4, 1999 Reforming Special Education
May 1, 2001 Progress in Special Education
December 12, 2001 The Battle Over Special Education
January 27, 2004 Leaving Some Children Behind

Copyright (c) 2006 Nancy Rice

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