Looking for ways to save money in the current economic crisis, state and district boards of education are questioning whether gifted programs are luxuries or necessities.

According to the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), states such as Massachusetts, Maryland, and Nevada have enacted legislation specifically to slash funding for gifted programs. In other states, legislators have passed austerity budgets, forcing state and local school boards of education to make difficult choices.

In response to drastic budget cuts, the Illinois State Board of Education zeroed out funds for gifted education. In testimony before the board, Gerald Brookhart, Peoria County Regional Superintendent of Schools, compared the state’s situation to “Sophie’s Choice,” saying that it had the unenviable task of deciding “[w]hat child are you going to throw away?”

In a world of limited resources, society should focus on initiatives that serve all children, rather than only those with high academic ability, according to author, educator, and child development specialist Joy Berry. Explaining that “all children are gifted,” Berry has identified music and art as just some of the many enrichment programs from which every student can benefit. She asks, “Why should we relegate to the select few the opportunities that we should make available to all children?”

Although there is little agreement on the definition of “gifted,” so-called “gifted programs” traditionally serve a small percentage of the student population. (See “Is Your Child Gifted?” for recognizing signs of giftedness.)

Critics of such programs claim that the students who are already motivated to learn receive the most talented teachers and best resources.  Berry argues that academically gifted children are “driven towards intellectual exploration and discovery and they cannot be derailed. They are so resourceful at getting their needs met. They will seek out libraries, museums, and experts for those conversations.” 

Advocates for gifted education disagree, responding that gifted programs are more than just enrichment for successful students. “The myth that gifted children will be okay on their own … is just that – a myth,” Jane Clarenbach, public relations director of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), has noted. “We’re failing to develop the talent of some of our top students, which leads (for some of them) to underachievement and lack of interest in school.”

Clarenbach explains that “[s]ervices and programs should be designed to respond to gifted students’ special learning needs – and therefore, they are as essential for those students as programs are that respond to students who have other specialized needs.”

As the parent of two gifted children, ages 11 and 9, Kim Moldofsky of Morton Grove, Illinois, finds it “frustrating … that many public schools view gifted programs as extras.”  She points out that “gifted mandates vary from state to state. So, even though there is an educational need, the gifted students may not have the rights to a free and appropriate education that other special-needs students do.”

For this reason, Jeanne Bernish, who writes about issues facing the gifted community, prefers the term “high ability” to convey that giftedness is “a trait – a cognitive function – and not an undeserved present bestowed upon middle class children whose parents over-stimulate them with Mozart and Legos.”

To advocates such as Bernish, this characterization is more than a matter of semantics.  Gifted children are at least equally at risk of dropping out as those who are not identified as gifted. (See “Underachieving Gifted Students” for more ideas about motivating gifted children.)  Connie Williams Coulianos, director of the Speyer Legacy School, fears that “there is potential for significant loss on two levels: both that of the full realization of personal potential and that of benefit to society of having its outstanding minds underdeveloped.”

A study by The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented found that many gifted students who drop out cite a lack of engagement and involvement with school. Gifted programs may provide the more challenging assignments and social connections that keep these students in school.

Seeking an appropriate environment for his two gifted children, ages 10 and 6, Lon Singer of New York City enrolled them in a public gifted school that he believes is more meritocratic than private school alternatives. Singer prefers the sense of community that the gifted school fosters for students and their families: “socially it is very comfortable for these kids to be together. Elsewhere they might be outcasts rather than proud of who they are.”

Barbara Swicord, president of the Summer Institute of the Gifted, agrees that enrichment programs help gifted children to “see themselves as worthy human beings, highly capable and highly able to compete with the brightest and best on an international level.”

Even in the face of budgetary constraints, parents and educators can continue to meet the academic, emotional, and social needs of academically gifted students with the following enrichment options:

  • Make Use of Community Resources: Most communities have libraries, theaters, and museums that already host programs appealing to gifted children. Beyond cultural institutions, farms, factories, laboratories, and other places of business may be willing to host programs, send guest speakers to classrooms, and provide internships for older students.
  • Explore Materials for Gifted Children: Michael Horn, author of “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns,” states that, “even in some of our gifted programs, we still limit many gifted students from pursuing their unique abilities to their maximum productive ends and therefore stunt them from realizing their human potential.” He recommends online learning sites, such as Brain Spark, that “allow students to pursue their interests at their own pace.”
  • Seek Support: Get together with likeminded parents and you may qualify for group discounts and be able to organize special programs and hire instructors for group classes.
  • Consider Acceleration: Although not without its critics, acceleration or “skipping” a grade is an inexpensive possibility. Visit the Acceleration Institute for arguments in favor of this option.
  • Enroll in College: College classes may fulfill high school requirements at a more academically appropriate level for your children.
  • Apply for Scholarships: Organizations such as Prep for Prep provide low-income students with tuition for challenging private schools.
  • Advocate for Your Rights: Children are entitled to a free and appropriate education. Groups such as the National Association for Gifted Children advocate for meeting the needs of gifted students.