4 Common-Sense Proposals for Special Education Reform

Today's mandates for special-needs students set schools up for lawsuits, conflict with No Child Left Behind requirements, and waste taxpayers' money. Here are some alternatives.

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The Individuals with Disabilities Improvement Act (IDEA) is an example of a statute that has achieved its noble mission but now urgently needs to be fixed in order to address its unintended consequences.

Enacted in 1975, IDEA requires schools to provide students with certain disabilities with an entitlement to a "free appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment." Today it covers more than 6 million students. And while America can be proud that so many children have done well under IDEA, special education services now consume well over 20 percent of school budgets -- a staggering amount that constrains available resources and opportunities for the rest of the student population.

What's more, the law has become a regulatory and bureaucratic nightmare for schools. A 2002 presidential commission found that there are 814 federal monitoring requirements for states' and schools' adherence to IDEA and its accompanying regulations. All 13,000-plus public school districts in America -- some 100,000 urban, rural, suburban, large, small, rich, poor, charter, and regular schools, each with own needs and resources -- must navigate this morass. The system can be much improved in every aspect, including cost control and a focus on outcomes, not procedural compliance.

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Implementation of the law using an "Individualized Education Program" (IEP) for each child is complex and formalistic. Schools are mandated to follow and implement these IEPs very closely, resulting in educators' spending precious time on multi-layered documentation and paperwork and in frequent long meetings. Their in-service training often focuses more on compliance than on best practices to improve instruction.

Instead of a collaborative model of dispute resolution, the law is based on private enforcement, charging parents with the responsibility to advocate for their children and pitting them against their children's schools. This adversarial system is often counterproductive as well as inequitable, as affluent (and often highly educated) parents know best how to use the system.

Over the years, the population of students served by IDEA, which is determined by a diagnosis and evaluation (i.e., the "medical model"), has changed. The law was written for students with severe and profound disabilities, but now some 70 to 80 percent of the students served are identified as having mild to moderate disabilities, such as speech, attention, and learning challenges -- diagnoses that have a greater degree of subjectivity. In fact, IDEA has created a vast diagnosis industry that serves as a gatekeeper to the entitlement.

The law raises questions of equity and public policy because, as the only educational program entitlement in schools, the resources and legal protections it mandates for special education students -- who account for 14 percent of the national school population -- do not similarly exist for "at-risk" students, English-language learners, average students, or gifted students.

Presented by

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman

Miriam Freedman has been an attorney at the Boston law firm of Stoneman, Chandler and Miller LLP since 1988, representing public schools in special education, Section 504, and school law.  More

Freedman is a co-founder of Special Education Day and the Special Education Day Committee (SPEDCO) to honor special education’s achievements and spur reform. Previously, Freedman was a Massachusetts hearing officer for eight years and a public school teacher in California, New Jersey, and New York. She has written six books in the education and law fields—most recently, Fixing Special Education—12 Steps to Transform a Broken System. Her articles have appeared in Education Week, Education Next, Hoover Digest, and elsewhere; she also writes on her personal site. Freedman received her law degree from New York University, her master's in history from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and bachelor of arts from Barnard College. Since 2004, she has been a visiting fellow at Stanford University.

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