Each year, parents and school boards duke it out at hearings and in court over the kinds of services and placements their schools provide for students with special needs.Those battles over special education have their roots in the 1976 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.The basic tenets of that landmark federal law are that students with disabilities should be provided with a “free, appropriate public education” (FAPE), and that this education should take place in the “least restrictive environment,” meaning as much as possible alongside students without disabilities. The articles, research and other materials collected in this Topics section examine the ways in which schools approach the process of educating students with special needs.
Since the inception of IDEA, the education of students with disabilities has varied across the country. The U.S. Department of Education monitors how states and districts are meeting the requirements of IDEA, but much of what it reviews focuses on processes—such as whether districts are evaluating students for special education services on time and whether they are working to inform parents about special education—rather than quality of the education that individual students receive.
In recent years, the number of students identified with some type of disability has changed, and for the first time since IDEA was enacted, overall numbers for students enrolled in special education dropped in 2005. One category of students, those with specific learning disabilities, has been responsible for much of the change, even though the numbers of students classified with other labels have increased. Many people attribute this drop to an approach called response to intervention (RTI). RTI is a set of techniques teachers use to address reading problems, and other issues, early in children’s school careers. Advocates for students with disabilities have voiced concern that districts and schools are using RTI as an alternative to providing students with disabilities with treatment, specialized instruction, or therapy. Another concern is that districts are using RTI as a way of identifying which students need special services, a purpose for which the approach was not originally intended. Advocates for RTI argue that it creates a continuum for students who need additional attention rather than merely placing students into either regular or special education.
Another area to probe regarding students with disabilities is testing. The implementation of IDEA has changed over time, and—when combined with the No Child Left Behind law —it now requires that students with disabilities participate in state assessment programs. (NCLB requires that at least 95 percent of students with disabilities are tested.) This mandate alone was a huge shift: Holding schools accountable for the assessment performance of students with disabilities was, to some advocates, a huge step forward. States and districts have to report how many students with disabilities are taking the same exams as their classmates without disabilities, and how many are taking alternative exams designed for students with severe cognitive disabilities. Some states have a test for students who fall in between, and this alternative has been a source of controversy.
How long the requirements of NCLB will last is a question mark. Congress has proposed several ways to rewrite the law, and the Education Department has offered states waivers that would exempt them from some of the law’s requirements. It is also unclear how changes in the NCLB law will affect the education of students with disabilities. Many of the reauthorization proposals have been criticized because they deemphasize the idea of accountability for different subgroups of students, including those with disabilities.
Budget/maintenance of effort
IDEA includes a requirement called maintenance of effort (MOE), which orders districts and states to keep the amount of money they spend on students with disabilities the same from year to year, or increase the special education budget, with a few exceptions. Exceptions include when a child with expensive needs moves away or graduates, or when a long-term teacher making a large salary leaves the system. This policy is designed to buffer students from legislative budget whims: A student who needs a particular type of therapy or education setting keeps their services from year to year. However, some states have started to invoke a waiver process that allows them to cut their special education budget without being penalized an equal amount in federal IDEA dollars. The federal waivers are relatively easy to track and seem to have tapered off.
Districts have been more vocal about the increasing cost of special education in recent years. In some cases, special education has become a target of criticism from parents whose children do not have disabilities, as they see districts cut extracurricular activities and increase class sizes but keep special education services unchanged. Case in point: One Michigan district cut busing for all students except those with disabilities to save money.
The federal Education Department, however, has issued guidance that says districts can cut their special education budgets, too, without as much of a penalty as they would have faced in the past. Some districts for the first time are going over their special education spending carefully. The districts are curbing the practice of enrolling students in private schools and sending more students to their neighborhood schools (which saves on transportation costs but must be done with care). Many districts actually are treating students with disabilities more inclusively. Inclusion has long been considered an educationally sound idea, though it is not without its critics, but the financial incentive means some districts now are more inclined to act on recommendations for more inclusion.
Tougher Standards Under Obama
The number of states in compliance with federal special education rules dropped from 38 to 15 after the Obama administration implemented tougher regulations in June of 2014. The announcement coincided with a report chronicling the lapse in achievement among special education students in all 50 states.
Through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the U.S. Department of Education can require states to demonstrate compliance with the federal law in order to earn their share of the $11.5 billion IDEA funnels to states to educate students with disabilities. States will now be required to have special education students take the same standardized students as other peers, close the academic performance gap and improve the outcomes of special education students on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). The department will transition to using states’ new standardized tests once they’ve all been aligned with college and career-ready standards.
The federal government will provide $50 million in technical assistance over several years to help states beef up their compliance measurements.
Looking forward, as the No Child Left Behind era winds down and the advent of common-core standards and assessments approaches, it is likely that special education could change dramatically. The new standards and assessments are expected to be a challenge even for many students in regular education. Many educators think the adjustment could be particularly difficult for students with disabilities.