For some advocates, No Child Left Behind marked a new chapter in which kids with disabilities counted. Since 1990, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has required that students with disabilities be included in the “least restrictive environment”—that is, general-education classrooms—whenever possible. Later, No Child Left Behind, by stipulating transparency and sanctions for schools that failed to boost disadvantaged students’ achievement, served to measure whether IDEA was being put into action: whether disabled students were getting access to mainstream curricula and the tools they needed to master them. For the first time, “[special-education students] were part of the system and there would be interventions unless academic achievement improved,” said Andy Smarick of the nonprofit education consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners.
Now, disabilities advocates worry that the new proposals’ opt-out amendments—along with the ability of states to determine the consequences for schools that fail to comply with testing expectations—could allow schools to slide back into the ‘70s, when students with disabilities were often warehoused in special rooms and only one-fifth received a public education. (Some might recall the reporter Geraldo Rivera’s famous 1972 expose of New York’s Willowbrook School, which reveals students naked, some in their own filth, with overwhelmed aides and no instruction.) In some states and districts, that era may have never come to a close: Last week, the Department of Justice issued a letter to Georgia alleging that the state was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by “unnecessarily segregating students with disabilities from their peers.”
Could the new law mean students with special needs may, once again, all but disappear on test days and end up back in their segregated learning environments? Pre-No Child Left Behind, some advocates argue, special-needs students were often asked to stay home or sit the test out, because it didn’t matter what percentage of them participated in the assessment.
These days, under federal law, students with disabilities get access to the general curriculum rather than, say, “life skills” classes. A blind student today needs a book in Braille, not a separate school; a student with an emotional disorder may require an aid in the same classroom, but while doing the same projects as his peers.
Candace Cortiella of The Advocacy Institute, a nonprofit focused on special-education rights, fears that the potential loopholes in the new law could mean those students would be again relegated to second-rate educations. Cortiella said she and her colleagues are “disappointed” with the bills because they lack “any kind of real provision that require specific intervention activity to take place in low-performing schools.” If schools know they can let students with disabilities slide academically or exclude some lower-performing special education students from their overall testing data, perhaps they wouldn’t make an effort to integrate them with their better-performing peers.