When it comes to meeting the needs of children with disabilities, the contrast between Japan and the United States is jarring. Although both countries acknowledge that these children possess natural gifts, they have gone about nurturing their strengths in diametrically different ways.

In this regard, Japan is far ahead. The proliferation of after-school cram schools is evidence. The Child Welfare Act was revised in 2012 to enhance support for the 215,000 children who are presently known to have various kinds of disabilities. Through the use of social welfare grants, these programs promote the social skills children need to become productive members of society.

But the total number of children with developmental disabilities is likely to far exceed the data provided by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. That’s a fair assumption based on the first survey of all prefectures conducted by the ministry of elementary and junior high school students in 2012. (Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures were excluded because they were hard hit by the March 2011 disasters.)

For too long, the U.S. allowed schools to settle for minimal educational progress for students with disabilities. When the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) became law in 1975 and was amended several times since then, it has required a “free appropriate public education” for all children. Unfortunately, the law demanded little “more than de minimis” gains. As a result, these children were not provided with the after-school support that Japan offers.

Disabled children in the U.S. run the risk of being shortchanged even further going forward by the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with the new American Health Care Act. The latter contains deep cuts to Medicaid, the federal health care program for the poor, that helps school districts cover costs for special education services and equipment.

According to The New York Times, school districts receive about $4 billion in Medicaid reimbursements annually. If passed, the bill would shift the burden to states, which would likely be forced to raise taxes or curtail services. Even worse, states would not have to consider schools Medicaid providers, making them ineligible for reimbursements.

Japan makes no such distinction in addressing the needs of children with disabilities. It correctly recognizes that parents without the means deserve the same support for their children as more affluent families. Treating all children with disabilities the same way is a model that the U.S. still has not adopted.

For example, in the U.S. vouchers for special needs children come with a catch. When parents accept the vouchers, they unwittingly forfeit their rights to the very help they hoped to gain. These include, among other things, the right to a state-certified or college-educated teacher and the right to a hearing to contest disciplinary action against a child.

Private school choice programs in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee and Wisconsin require parents to waive all or most of their IDEA rights, while other states are mute on the subject. Yet these private schools are legally on sound footing, even though the tuition paid to them comes from taxpayers.

Despite the glaring inequities, it’s highly unlikely that the U.S. will adopt Japan’s model. There are simply too many vested interests determined to maintain the present system. Lost in the debate are the children.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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