For children with disabilities, a public school education should not be this difficult to have access to.
Access the article originally published by USA Today.
Written by John M. McLaughlin
It’s happened again as it does each year. The U.S. Department of Education announced in late June that less than half the states were in compliance with federal special education law for the 2018-19 academic year.
When I was a special education administrator, I benefited from a friendship with a pediatrician who specialized in adolescent medicine, Earl Vastbinder. The good doctor would occasionally conduct a faculty in-service for special education teachers. One of his insights has stuck with me for decades, “Rules not enforced breed contempt.” When I learned once again that less than half the states comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), I thought of Dr. Vastbinder’s insight.
Special education made giant leaps on the coattails of the civil rights movement. After more than a decade of congressional study, The Education of All Handicapped Children Act was passed in 1975, signed by President Gerald Ford in November of that year. In 1997, the law was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The legal rationale for protection of students with disabilities was based on access — if it was wrong to deny access to public schools to students based on race, it was equally wrong to deny access to public schools based on disability. At the time of its passage in 1975, Congressional hearings revealed that 1.75 million children were being excluded from public schools due to a disability.
The Great Society never arrived
The progress made in the 1960s through the civil rights movement and the efforts of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society with its vision of the eradication of poverty and discrimination were real but never complete.
Access was the watchword — children of color and those with disabilities won access to schools and strides were made in opening housing, employment, and voting. Access was a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t the end of the journey. For each small step forward, systemic processes, the power of wealth, legislative redistricting, and the courts were used to curb true equality.
In the special education world, hundreds of pages of rules and continually redefined regulations took the spirit of access and turned it into a game of hide the ball. One federal law interpreted by 50 state departments of education and implemented by 13,500 school districts has made a patchwork of special education services.
A few states like Massachusetts and California have a long history of taking special education seriously while other states appear only superficially committed to the law and to public schools’ responsibility to appropriately educate students with disabilities and prepare those with severe challenges for an independent life after school services end.
Foot dragging, slow walking, using the law to delay, and running out the clock are common tactics schools use to postpone services, especially for students with complex issues or assertive and informed parents. But individual school districts are not the only shirkers of responsibility.
Serious, widespread neglect
From 2004 until The Houston Chronicle published a series of investigative storiesin 2016, Texas, with directives from the highest levels in its education agency, capped the number of children in special education to no more than 8.5% of a school’s enrollment when the average proportion of children with special education needs in the other 49 states was 13%.
Avoiding compliance with the law is taken seriously by too many school districts for the simple reason that there are no real consequences to the district for ignoring it. If, after years of disregarding the law, a school district or state is found to have violated it, the most common consequence is that the state must start to adhere to the law. While federal funding might be withheld for a period and fines imposed as punishment, no one loses a professional license, no one pays a fine, no one goes to jail.
It is a financially calculated risk that many school districts and some states take in deliberately failing to provide mandated services. It is only the children and their families who pay the consequences of schools’ callous disregard for the rights of children with special education needs.
In truth, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is effectively the only parentally enforced federal law on the books. Since, 1977 public schools have been legally required to provide a free and appropriate public education for children with special education needs. That’s 43 years of federal law; but as the recent U.S. Department of Education report indicates, 29 states and the District of Columbia still don’t get it right. When the consequences of failure are inconsequential, who cares?
Like Dr. Vastbinder observed, “Rules not enforced breed contempt.”
John M. McLaughlin has spent his career working with special needs and at-risk students. He is managing partner at McLaughlin Advisors and a director at ChanceLight Education. His latest book, co-authored with Mark Claypool, “How Autism is Reshaping Special Education: The Unbundling of IDEA” (Rowman & Littlefield) was named Human Relations Impact Book of 2017.