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Journal Issue: Children with Disabilities Volume 22 Number 1 Spring 2012

Disability and the Education System
Laudan Aron Pamela Loprest

Implications for Practice and Policy

The nation's special education system, like the legal and regulatory framework that underpins it, has evolved considerably since IDEA was first passed in 1975. Along with the efforts of parents and educators and greater societal awareness about disability issues, IDEA has clearly led to better access to public education for students with disabilities, an established infrastructure for educating children with disabilities, earlier identification of disabilities in children, and greater inclusion of these children in classrooms with their nondisabled peers. Despite these advances, special education students still lag behind their nondisabled peers in educational achievements, are often held to lower expectations, are less likely to take the full academic curriculum in high school, and are more likely to drop out of school. Nor is there much evidence regarding the basic effectiveness of many services that special education students receive (at considerable expense and bureaucratic complexity) or whether these services improve student achievement.

Over the years many studies have documented fundamental problems with IDEA. In 2002 a President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education determined the system to be "in need of fundamental re-thinking, a shift in priorities, and a new commitment to individual needs."56 Among the problems they identified were financial incentives to define an increasing share of school-age children as having a disability, adversarial procedures between parents and schools that contributed to unnecessary litigation, and a major redirection of financial resources from regular education to special education. Other studies have demonstrated states' noncompliance with the many administrative and procedural requirements of the program, as well as the federal government's lack of funding and ineffectiveness in enforcing the law.57

Despite widespread agreement that the special education system is not working as it should or could, opinions differ over how it should be fixed. Policy makers, advocates for children with disabilities, and researchers increasingly have called for financing reforms and for more accountability measures similar to those introduced in the No Child Left Behind Act.58 Many of the 1997 and 2004 amendments to the law were designed to increase accountability and flexibility regarding financing; these amendments addressed but did not fully resolve perverse state incentives to increase identification of special education students. Families of children with disabilities, disability rights groups, and other advocates and supporters of IDEA have sharply opposed calls for fundamental changes to the special education system.59 They believe the program is well conceived and properly structured but has been poorly funded, implemented, and enforced.

These tensions around reform reflect the law itself. IDEA constitutes a blend of civil rights law and state grant programs. The dual nature and purpose of the law has contributed to the creation of different stakeholders, with different goals, at the grassroots level. The major stakeholders in civil rights laws tend to be the individuals who are protected by the law—in this case, children and youth with disabilities and their families and supporters. The major stakeholders in grant programs are the recipients of the grants, in this case state and local educational agencies, school boards, their staffs, and other professionals who are supported financially by the grants. In addition, the natural course of reform for government programs with limited resources is to debate priorities and make trade-offs among them. But the civil rights requirements of IDEA limit the ability to make trade-offs because states are required to provide all services necessary for a "free and appropriate education." Part of the ongoing challenge for program financing is how to divide these costs across the three levels of government, given the already increasing share borne by local districts and tight budgets at all levels.

Another challenge for the special education system is the adversarial nature of the program. The many legal conflicts that arise between parents and schools can be counterproductive for children and their educational success and costly for school systems. To some extent, these conflicts arise because parents play an integral role—one that is required by law—in the team that develops their child's individualized service plan. The incentives for parents to obtain the most help for their child may differ from those for school systems that are trying to balance educational needs and budgets. In some cases, parents feel that school systems are trying to avoid mandated responsibilities and need to be held accountable legally. In any case, the role of parents in education generally as well as in special education is essential. Children without parents who can advocate for them are often the least well served, in general and special education, and these are often children from families who are already socially and economically disadvantaged. Forming a less adversarial system that can serve the broader community of children needing special services is an important challenge.

Reforming special education cannot be done in isolation; it requires integration with reforms being made in general education. The large amount of time that many special education students spend in general education settings is one argument for this integration. Another is the absence of a bright line between many of the needs of special education students and those of other students. Efforts such as response to intervention and positive behavioral interventions and supports demonstrate this fact by creating school environments that are more conducive to positive behaviors and to learning for everyone. These efforts, when implemented as designed, break down a legal and programmatic firewall that has existed between the general and special education systems. They may serve as models for other aspects of the special education system and point the way for better serving not only children with disabilities but all students.

Despite calls for increased funding and the need for reform, little evidence exists to suggest that additional federal funding or better enforcement will improve student outcomes or solve many of the problems experienced by schools and families alike. More evidence on the impacts of special education services on achievement and student outcomes is necessary to gauge the efficacy of the money being spent. Pinpointing the causes of the gap between special education and other students' outcomes and determining how to reduce this gap effectively requires ongoing research. That in turn requires better data on outcomes as well as services provided across special education students of all ages. In addition, greater efforts are needed to develop and standardize appropriate assessments of academic achievement for students with disabilities. Finally, given the vast differences in service needs and outcomes across students of different disability types, attention needs to focus on understanding how all these issues affect different subgroups of special education students.

The direction special education might take in the next few decades is uncertain. Clearly, providing children with disabilities equal access to public education and protecting this important civil right should not be undone. But aspects of the current program appear to be both unsustainable and unwise—unsustainable because of the cost and unwise given evidence of the continuing gap between outcomes for students in special education and their nondisabled peers. Together those responsible for the general and special education systems must craft solutions that make education special for all students while not leaving children with disabilities behind.