Education is the foundation of a productive and fulfilling life. Education teaches us to read, think, process, and analyze information. When taught these skills, individuals can grow and develop into contributing members of society. We can all agree that this is the goal of an appropriate education.
But when is an education “appropriate,” and who decides what is appropriate? For many children without disabilities, a general education curriculum is appropriate. For children with disabilities, deciding what constitutes an appropriate education is a critical question. School districts and families grapple with this question all the time.
The Goal of Special Education
The federal law that defines special education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), lists 14 qualifying disabilities that entitle a child to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Once deemed eligible under IDEA, the law states that the child’s education must be “designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living.” [20 U.S.C. § 1400 (d)(1)(B)] In other words, the law is outcome based with a focus on the future life of the student as a functioning member of society.
This goal, however, is frequently thwarted by school districts that, for various reasons, do not always have a child’s education as their primary goal. We warn parents in our articles and lectures that parents and schools have different perspectives. Most parents are focused on their child’s future (“Will my child be able to go to college?” or “Can my adult child live independently from me?”), while schools are focused on budget costs and the current year’s IEP goals. Unless parents understand these different perspectives, they can lead to misunderstanding and frustration for the parents and an inappropriate education for the child.
FAPE is More Than Academic
The elementary school years are foundational. Students must first learn to read so they can read to learn. When the basic skills of education are not learned in a timely matter, a gap grows between the students who have these skills and those who don’t. For students who lag behind, there is a social and emotional toll, not just an academic one. Self-esteem can plummet, and depression and anxiety can set in.
IDEA, as clarified by court decisions, requires schools to address these social/emotional issues before the school can demonstrate that a student is making effective progress. Many state laws are even more specific in this regard. Massachusetts, for example, requires that a student have “documented growth in the acquisition of knowledge and skills, including social/emotional development.” [603 CMR § 28.02(17)] The law is clear, an appropriate education means more than simply academic success.
School Tactics to Deny FAPE
Sadly, we have seen too many school districts focus on their budget more than their obligation to provide a free and appropriate public education. IDEA does not permit teachers and administrators to consider cost as a reason for denying a student needed services. So instead, these schools rely on diversionary tactics, such as minimizing parent concerns, not including parents in decisions, withholding information, delaying or offering less expensive and inadequate services (such as Response to Intervention) to keep their costs down.
Schools also know that when parents are exhausted and struggling for answers, and the school gives them progress reports with statements like the ones we have seen: “It has been a pleasure working with this enthusiastic and engaging youngster,” and “She is a polite and hard-working adolescent,” these positive sounding but ultimately meaningless reassurances are what the parents focus on rather than the reality of their child’s struggle.
As a last resort, some schools just refuse to provide needed services and essentially dare parents to file for a hearing with their state’s department of education, knowing that only a small percentage of parents will actually do so.
These tactics are successful when parents are unaware of their legal rights and accept them without question.
When School Tactics Fail, Fight the Parents
For the parents who do know their legal rights, sometimes their only option is to hire a lawyer to force a non-compliant school district to follow the state and federal laws. Then the district might be willing to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight those parents rather than put the money into providing the services that a child is entitled to. In our book we document how one school district in Pennsylvania spent $329,084 defending itself against what was ultimately a $10,000 judgement.
And the Results…
Time passes. Each school year goes quickly. Suddenly a child is a teenager, facing the prospect of life beyond high school without the supports of special education. Since the school’s obligation to a student ends once that student accepts a high school diploma, some schools try to finish their obligation as quickly as possible, even if that student is not ready to graduate.
This approach ignores IDEA’s requirement of preparing a student “for further education, employment and independent living.” We experienced this tactic first hand in addition to reading multiple hearing decisions where schools have tried to force a student to graduate without adequate preparation.
Research by the National Center on Educational Outcomes indicates that 80 to 85 percent of students with disabilities have the cognitive ability to achieve the same state academic standards as their non-disabled peers. Yet, according to the National Longitudinal Transition Study, only 7.6 percent of these students attend a four-year college compared to almost 30 percent of their peers without disabilities. Likewise, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that the unemployment rate for young adults with disabilities is twice that of the general population.
The Dropout-to-Prison Pipeline… and Worse
In 2016, The Houston Chronicle ran a series of articles by investigative reporter Brian Rosenthal on special education in Texas. He reported that officials from the Texas Education Agency, without any data to support their decision, dramatically reduced the percentage of students in the state’s special education programs in an apparent attempt to reduce costs. The series concluded that thousands of vulnerable students with qualifying disabilities were denied special education services.
So what happens to these students who are denied an appropriate education? For those whose parents do not have the ability to home school or pay for expensive private schools, they languish in general education classrooms without the proper help. When these students fall behind, they often experience depression and exhibit behavior problems. From there, it is a short distance to suspensions and expulsions. According to the Chronicle, “Some [students] have even entered the criminal justice system or otherwise required intensive adult services that cost far more than special education.”
“What we’re looking at with these kids who don’t get services… is continued demoralization,” says David Anderson of the Child Mind Institute. This leads these students “to give up and become part of the `dropout-to-prison pipeline.'” Even worse, a member of the Texas Behavioral Health Advisory Committee acknowledges that “students have killed themselves because nobody was willing to pay attention.”
The personal cost of of living an unfulfilled and unproductive life is dire.
Write Your Congressman!
When Congress passed the first special education law in 1975, it authorized the Federal Government to pay for 40% of all special education costs. Unfortunately, Congress has never funded more than 20% of those costs and often less. This means that local communities must cover the rest. Property taxes rise and residents react, resulting in a backlash against students with disabilities. We have read many complaints over the years written by parents who feel that education is some sort of zero-sum game in which students in special education receive privileges that take opportunities away from their children in general education.
This point of view is shortsighted and misguided, however. If special education costs seem high, compare them to the cost of not providing an appropriate education. An adult who is not able to function productively requires disability insurance, food assistance, and Medicaid, among other costs, for the remainder of his or her adult life. If those who advocate for lower taxes and smaller government won’t acknowledge society’s moral and ethical obligation to its most vulnerable members, then they should at least consider the monetary cost.
Instead of complaining about the students in special education, all parents should write their legislative leaders to request proper funding for IDEA as Congress originally intended. Society has an obligation to educate children of all abilities. When schools don’t provide an appropriate education, the outcome can be tragic, and we collectively suffer in the long run.
Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves