In The Politics of Autism, I write about special education and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
More than 725,000 of California’s K–12 students qualified for special education services in 2018–19, but they entered a system that is often ill equipped to serve them.
Despite the well-established consensus on the benefits of early identification, California continues to fall below national averages in identifying and serving infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with developmental disabilities. Ideally, all children should be screened, but fewer than 1 in 3 California children receive developmental screenings, and California ranks 43rd in developmental screening rates for young children (Hunt, 2020).
After they have been diagnosed, children age 3 and older receive special education services based on an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a legal document that specifies the instruction, supports, and services the child requires to make progress in school. Learning disabilities are diagnosed by (a) a severe discrepancy between student aptitude for learning and academic performance; (b) patterns of basic cognitive processing strengths or weaknesses impairing a student’s ability to learn; or (c) failure to respond positively to an individually customized instructional intervention (Farkas, 2020).
After comparing students with similar needs for academic assistance, students of all racial/ ethnic subgroup categories and most levels of need are identified for special education at a lower rate in California than national averages. And even though African American students are identified for special education at higher rates relative to their representation among all students, African American students who are low performing in reading and math are actually less likely to be identified for special education than similarly low-performing White students (Farkas, 2020).10 Low performance is associated with many causes other than disability; however, the lower likelihood of a low-performing African American student receiving special education services raises equity concerns, particularly if special education services are the primary resource available in schools to help low-performing students.
While each student’s LRE is individually determined by their IEP team, the law states that student placement should maximize opportunities for students to interact with their peers without disabilities. However, in 2017–18, California had one of the lowest inclusion rates in the country: 56 percent compared to a national average of 63.4 percent (Humphrey, Gamse, Myung,& Cottingham, 2020).