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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Special Education Premises

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman writes of the "broken premises" of special education:
  • That the system needs uniform rules and federal and state bureaucracies with stifling regulations and procedures for all SWD. Ignoring the necessary cornerstone of trust for effective schooling, IDEA manifests the premise of distrust between parents and schools. Congress created this education system to be adversarial. It’s as simple as that.

I suspect that one reason for the complexity and regimentation of this system is that it serves a very diverse group of SWD – from the most severely disabled, including mentally retarded, multiply handicapped and deaf and blind students (for whom the law was initially written) to students with milder disabilities, including those with specific learning disabilities, speech/language impairments, or other health impairments, including ADD and ADHD. Notably, this second group now makes up the vast majority of all SWD. In California, of the 609,665 students served in 2007, according to the last-available 29th Annual Report to Congress by the Office of Special Education [and Rehabilitative] Services, students with learning disabilities, speech/language impairments, or other health impairments added up to 483,613 students – 79 percent of all SWD in the state! Surely we can agree that their needs are very different from the first group of SWD. Yet this system is premised on treating all SWD the same in terms of process, bureaucracy, regulations, legal requirements, etc. In any event, this piece focuses on the latter group – 79 percent of California’s SWD – with milder disabilities.


  • That the parents’ role is to enforce the law. Due to the premise that parents cannot trust schools and need due process protections against them, Congress handed them the job of IDEA’s private enforcers. They have to advocate for their child against their school. Reportedly, IDEA has become the fourth most litigated federal civil statute. Litigation and fear of litigation drive much of special education in many states. In the 2008-2009 school year, California was among the top five states in terms of adjudicated hearings, according to a 2010 article by Perry A. Zirkel and Gina Scala, “Due Process Hearing Systems Under the IDEA: A State-by-State Survey,” in the Journal of Disability Policy Studies.

In creating this role for parents, the law skewed common sense. First, it requires a cooperative team effort by schools and parents and then it allows them to sue each other. How can that be? Second, it imposes no responsibility on parents to work with schools to help their children learn. It’s time for President Obama’s eloquent call: turn off the TV, help with homework, put kids to bed at night. Parents should parent their kids, not fight their schools.

There are some significant omissions in this analysis.

First, it should have noted the reason why Congress passed IDEA (then the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) in the first place: namely that some schools had refused to provide any education for children with disabilities.

Second, it is misleading to suggest that the system treats all children "the same." Services vary widely according to type and extent of disability. Also note that the IDEA report shows that students with autism accounted for only 4.4 percent of the California total.

Third, the analysis should have noted that, as "repeat players," school districts have great advantages in legal conflicts with parents.

Fourth, parents who fight for their kids in IEP and due-process hearings are also going to help with their homework. It is inaccurate and insulting to suggest that negligent parents are the problem.