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 section of Story Starters 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.
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. — Nirvi Shah, June 2012
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
Formal complaints on behalf of the Seattle school district's 7,000 special-education students have doubled over the past two years. Parents, teachers and state officials blame a central administration they say has become indifferent to the long-troubled department. (Seattle Times)Read More »
A new report from the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights says that, from 2009 to 2011, the agency received more complaints about disability issues than ever before in a three-year period.
During that time, 55 percent of the total number of complaints the civil rights office received had to do with disabilities. To put that number in context, consider that OCR enforces civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in a host of other areas, including race, national origin, sex, and age. (Ed Week)Read More »
The medical community considers changing the range of characteristics that are used to diagnose whether an individual has autism. (New York Times)Read More »
In 2008, a report revealed that many students with special needs in the San Diego Unified district were effectively segregated. This 2012 series examines the district’s successes and failures as it transitions toward more inclusion. (Voice of San Diego)Read More »
This look at a lawsuit in the Atlanta school district highlights that occur between parents and school systems regarding the education of students in special education programs. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)Read More »
This article looks at the ways the U.S. Education Department eased the guidelines regarding the maintenance of effort requirements. (Education Week)Read More »
A look at whether students with hearing disabilities are better served at separate schools where they use sign language or in “mainstream” schools. (New York Times)Read More »
EWA 2012 National Reporting Contest winner.This story on students who have severe hearing disabilities weaves the tale of a little boy, charges of cultural genocide, and one family's fight to get Seattle schools to listen. (Seattle Times)Read More »
After decades of increases, the number of students classified as learning disabled steadily decreased from the 2000-2001 school to 2007-2008. Educators are uncertain of the reasons for the drop. (Education Week)Read More »
EWA 2010 National Reporting Contest winner. For college athletes, how much help is too much if they have learning disabilities? This story features a fired disabilities coach who university officials say blurred the line between aiding student-athletes with learning disabilities and academic fraud. Other members of the university's athletic academic support unit in some cases supplied answers to tests, and in other cases typed papers, for 61 athletes in football and other sports. (ESPN)Read More »
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Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
Today, Fordham is releasing a groundbreaking study that helps address those questions: Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education. Author Nate Levenson of the District Management Council uses the largest database of information on special education spending and staffing ever assembled to uncover significant variance in how districts staff for special education. Levenson concludes that if the high-spending districts studied reduce their staffing in this area to the national median the public could save $10 billion and offers clear recommendations for improving the quality and efficiency. (Thomas B. Fordham Institute)Read More »
This helpful website outlines the inclusion guidelines for the participation of special needs students in the NAEP assessment tests. (National Center for Education Statistics)Read More »
The National Early Intervention Longitudinal Study: A National Study of Infants, Toddlers, and Their Families Receiving Early Intervention ServicesOngoing
This website offers more information about NEILS, a longitudinal study that is following more than 3,300 children with disabilities or at risk for disabilities and their families through their experiences in early intervention and into early elementary school. (SRI International)Read More »
This section of the IDEA website contains Part B and Part C data reported annually by states to the Office of Special Education (OSEP), including state-by-state, rank-ordered, and historic trend data. (Data Accountability Center)Read More »
This chart breaks down the number of students with disabilities by type. (National Center for Education Statistics)Read More »
Seclusions and Restraints: Selected Cases of Death and Abuse at Public and Private Schools and Treatment CentersMay 19, 2009
This report examines the varying laws and policies states have that enable educators to use physical restraints on students, particularly those with special needs. The practice is highly controversial. (U.S. Government Accountability Office)Read More »
This 2008 report goes into great detail regarding the population of students with disabilities in the nation’s schools. (Education Week)Read More »
No Child Left Behind Act: Most Students with Disabilities Participated in Statewide Assessments, but Inclusion Options Could Be ImprovedOctober 28, 2005
This report found that in the 2003-2004 school year at least 95 percent of the special education students in 41 states participated in the NCLB testing. (U.S. Government Accountability Office)Read More »
This page gives information about about a 2002 book that examines the racial inequities in the designation and education of students in special education programs. (The Civil Rights Project)Read More »
Five Questions to Ask
- In your district or coverage area, ask how many students with disabilities they have, and what proportion receives special education services. How does that compare with your state’s numbers and the national numbers?
- Does your region use RTI? What does it look like in practice? Has the size of the population of students with specific learning disabilities in your area changed in recent years?
- Ask about which type of NCLB tests special education students take in the districts you cover and compare those numbers with state data. How different do these tests look? How do students with disabilities perform on the state assessments, and what proportion of students with disabilities take tests in the first place?
- Has your state applied for a federal waiver for the special education “maintenance of effort” budget requirements? If so, how would such a waiver affect student services? Have your districts used the revised U.S. Department of Education special education guidelines to change their budgets from year to year? If the numbers are changing, what services are changing?
- What is your state doing to prepare teachers, and students, for the new common standards and the associated exams?
As a project of the PACER center, the ALLIANCE National Parent Technical Assistance Center offers networking, support, and other resources to parents of students with disabilities, in particular through the development of Parent Centers that provide families with information. The site is a helpful resource in locating parents and families with special needs children in your region.
The Council for Exceptional Children "is the largest international professional organization dedicated to improving the educational success of individuals with disabilities and/or gifts and talents.” The Congressional policy and advocacy goals outlined on the council’s website offer insights toward what topics are currently prominent in the world of special education.
The National Association of State Directors of Special Education has worked since 1938 with education agencies in the states and territories “to align policies and proven practices in order to ensure students with disabilities are afforded full participation in their education and successful transition to post-school education, employment and independent living.” Among the intiatives NASDE operates are the Response to Intervention (RTI) Project and the Deaf Education Initiative.
The National Center on Learning Disability, though not singularly focused on education, “works to ensure that the nation's 15 million children, adolescents, and adults with learning disabilities have every opportunity to succeed in school, work, and life.” On the education front, the NCLD primarily works to inform parents of their child’s legal rights.
Congress established the National Center for Special Education Research as part of the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The research of the center “systematically [explores] how to best design instruction to meet the needs of each child with a disability” with an emphasis on the policy and practices parts of the equation.
The Office of Special Education Programs is the federal office responsible for the administration of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. OSEP offers a variety of “programs [that] are intended to ensure that the rights of infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities and their parents are protected.”
Autistic and Seeking a Place in this World, a video and article by New York Times reporter Amy Harmon, offer a profile of an autistic high school student as he prepares to enter life as an adult.
40 Must-See YouTube Special Education Videos, compiled by a graduate student studying special education, offer a wide variety of perspectives on educating students with special needs.
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.