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Reforms Needed to Rebuild the Popularity of Federal Special Education Law

The Individuals with Disabilities Improvement Act (IDEA) has now been in existence for 38 years.   Over that time span, over 6 million students have benefited from the IEPs that became legally mandated as a result of this law.   More recently the IDEA is becoming a victim of its own success.   To read more about the reforms needed to regain the popularity of special ed funding see below:

Fixing the Individuals with Disabilities Improvement Act to Meet Today’s Challenges

Special education services now consume well over 20 percent of school budgets — a staggering amount that constrains available resources and opportunities for the rest of the student population.  Political pressure for more educational resources getting reallocated back to the general school population has been mounting steadily for several years now.  Two IDEA reforms would go a long way towards regaining the popular support that IDEA previously enjoyed.   I believe that they are the best way to make sure that we do not “throw out the baby with the bathwater” and ensure that decades of special education improvements spawned by IDEA do not unravel.

The first reform involves shifting our special education focus from compliance to outcomes.  Schools are mandated to follow and implement these IEPs very closely, resulting in educators’ spending precious time on multi-layered documentation and paperwork and in frequent long meetings largely to make sure they are in compliance with legal mandates. The most telling proof that this part of IDEA is broken is that the majority of in-service training focuses more on compliance than on best practices to improve instruction.  One reason for this excessive focus on compliance is educators’ fear of litigation.   There are actually few appeal hearings and most parents seem satisfied with their children’s services.  Compliance does not improve student results. Only time on task does.
The second reform is to apply the medical only for student with severe disabilities   For a number of years now, 70-80% of the students diagnosed as needing special education are in the “mild to moderate” range where a medical diagnostic model is expensive and too subjective.  Too often the only difference between mild special needs students and many regular students is that the former group have families with the knowledge and financial resources to get an independent evaluation that gives the student a diagnosis that gives him or her the right to an IEP.

The adversarial approach of “private enforcement” by parents needs to be replaced by better dispute resolution models such as mediators and ombudsmen.  Federal and state enforcement need to set up better mechanisms for encouraging trust-building and collaboration between schools and parents.  While these suggested reforms will not change the declining popularity of IDEA overnight, but aligning regular and special education around outcome goals will more firmly move us in the direction of continuing the dramatic progress in public school special education that has happened over the past four decades.

 

By Robert Hoyt, Ph.D.
President, Allied Health Professionals LLC
M.A., Learning Disabilities
Ph.D, Clinical Psychology

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