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Thoughts on the 40th Anniversary of IDEA

Lincoln WinterLast month the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) reached an anniversary milestone of 40 years. We have been reflecting on this law, the enormous impact it has had on education, and the daunting task of fulfilling its promise for all students with disabilities.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s inspired parents and advocacy groups to believe that students with disabilities had a right to the same educational opportunities as their non-disabled peers. As a result, the level of school participation for the disabled increased at both the state and local levels. Despite this progress, by 1970 only 20 percent of students with identified disabilities were being educated in public schools. Many state laws specifically excluded students who were deaf, blind, “mentally retarded,” or “emotionally disturbed” (to use the terms of that era as they were written into the laws) from getting any public education at all. Many students who were turned away languished at home or in institutions.

Massachusetts was the first state in the country to pass a comprehensive special education law, known as Chapter 766. At the federal level, the legal recognition of the rights of students with disabilities occurred in 1975 when Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This law was modeled after Massachusetts’ Chapter 766.

The law required schools to provide a “free appropriate public education” to students with a wide range of disabilities. It also required that districts provide this education in the “least restrictive environment,” a mandate that opened the doors of mainstream classrooms to the 80 percent of students with special needs who had up to then been excluded. Later this law was given the name we know it by today, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

We are grateful that public education became available to all students 40 years ago, but we also recognize that much more work needs to be done. Because IDEA does not give specific definitions to terms like “appropriate education” and “least restrictive environment,” school districts and parents frequently disagree about the meaning of these concepts. The main reason for this conflict is that funding for special education is so inadequate.

In 1975, Congress authorized the Federal government to pay for 40 percent of all special education costs. Since that time, the government has funded less than 20 percent of these costs. The rest of the money to pay for special education comes from either individual states or local communities.

The intent of IDEA is for schools to provide special education services to students with identified disabilities at no cost to the parents. But this takes money and IDEA has never been fully funded. Thus school districts and parents clash when a child’s needs require expensive services.

For the parents, the stakes are incredibly high, as their child’s future depends on an appropriate education. For school districts with constrained budgets, there is pressure to serve students in the most cost-effective way.

In addition, political groups, at both the state and local level, can apply great pressure to school districts. Some residents in towns complain that their tax dollars are used to pay for the educations of less-deserving children in special education. Funds to train teachers for educating special needs students or to hire highly qualified staff are often limited. As a result, the public school budget sometimes limits special education services to a “one size fits all” approach that ultimately fits no one.

All these factors can influence the education that individual students receive. Parents are frequently unaware of these political pressures and wind up feeling confused and frustrated by the special education experience. The result is that many children with disabilities do not receive an education that is appropriate to their needs.

Ultimately, while the implementation of IDEA is far from ideal, we want to acknowledge the anniversary of the law that opened the doors of public education for the many deserving children who might otherwise have been excluded from the classroom. We also want to reaffirm our goal of educating parents about their children’s rights so that their children might realize the education promised to them 40 years ago. We should remember that everyone benefits when all members of our society receive an appropriate education.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

Question: Has your family benefited from IDEA? In what ways could your experience have been better? You can tell us through our Contact page. Let us know if we can share your story with our blog readers.

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The Role of a Special Education Advocate

When we entered special education many years ago, we had never heard of a special education advocate. And if we had, we probably wouldn’t have hired one because we felt comfortable with our son’s Team members. Later, however, we realized that we had missed important opportunities by not having an experienced professional explain our son’s rights and the school’s responsibilities to us.

Going It Alone (Our Experience Without An Advocate)

In the early days of elementary school, the general education teachers were warm and nurturing. Teachers only had one class of about twenty children all day long, so the demands on them weren’t as great as on teachers in middle school and high school.

The special education teachers also seemed to make an extra effort to get to know us and our son. We were impressed by their sincerity and their efforts. But we discovered that sometimes the school culture and the administrative bureaucracy get in the way of that idealism.

By middle school, we found the nurturing environment and attitude fading away. The entire school culture changed. There were multiple teachers and much larger classes. Getting an appointment to meet with our liaison or the general education teachers was almost impossible. We found fewer opportunities to be involved in school life and to get to know the teachers and the other students.

Now we realized we were in trouble. Our son wasn’t making progress and the teachers didn’t have time to meet with us. By seventh grade we noticed that the goals in our son’s IEP were being changed without our knowledge or a Team meeting to discuss them. A friend suggested a special education advocate who she had used. We contacted that person and made an appointment.

What Does An Advocate Do?

We began by reviewing our son’s educational history with the advocate. Fortunately we had kept all his paperwork. The advocate helped us organize everything in chronological order, then she reviewed our son’s IEPs. Finally she explained to us that the school had committed multiple violations of the special education laws. Our trust in the school district was crumbling with each passing day.

We began to realize how naive we had been in those early years. Although everyone had been very nice, they had ignored opportunities to recommend needed services at a critical time for learning and sometimes even violated explicit special education laws. While it is possible that some of the school personnel simply did not know the law and what was required of them, it is also possible that they chose to not follow the law in order to save time and money on special education services the school should have provided.

Now we understood the importance of working with an experienced advocate. Had we been working with her in elementary school, she would have noted the violations and advised us on our rights when it could have helped our son the most. She also had a lot of experience working with other families in our town and would have helped us avoid certain situations unique to our school district.

How to Find an Advocate

There are no licensing requirements for special education advocates like there are for most other professionals you will encounter in special education. It is critical to check the training and credentials of anyone you are considering. In many states the federally funded Parent Training and Information Centers (PTI) offer advocate training classes. The Yellow Pages for Kids, maintained by the Wrightslaw website at www.yellowpagesforkids.com lists PTIs, advocates, and other professionals in every state. Finally, ask other parents with children in special education about advocates they have used.

Once you have one or more names of advocates you can contact, arrange for an interview, either on the phone or in person, and ask questions such as the following:

  • Confirm the advocate’s training and credentials. They should match what you have already discovered through your research.
  • Describe your child’s problems and listen carefully to the advocate’s responses. Try to get a sense of his or her style and personality and whether or not you feel comfortable with that person.
  • Ask if he or she has worked collaboratively with your school district in the past. Someone who knows the people and programs in your district already has a head start.
  • Finally, ask for references and talk to other parents who have used this advocate. Ask if the kind of help you are seeking is similar to what the advocate helped them with.

Although an advocate’s fees can be quite reasonable compared with other special education professionals you may encounter, if finances are an issue, there is a federal program, Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, that can provide free advocacy help. The website: www.parentcenternetwork.org, contains links that will help you locate a group in your area.

How to Work With an Advocate

The role of a special education advocate is to help you understand the laws and advocate for an appropriate education for your child. There are many ways to achieve this goal. The two most common are:

  • You can work with an advocate behind the scenes. This can help maintain your relationship with school personnel if you fear they might feel threatened by the presence of an outside professional.
  • Have the advocate attend Team meetings and negotiate for appropriate services and accommodations. The advocate can help you understand the sometimes hidden dynamics in the room and keep the meeting on track. For more on how this can work, see our earlier post Surviving Team Meetings.

In some states special education advocates specialize in either legal or educational advocacy. A legal advocate, often referred to as a “lay advocate,” is not a lawyer, but has specialized training in legal matters that pertain to special education. Lay advocates can attend Team meetings, write letters, and negotiate with schools to help resolve problems. In some states they can even represent parents in due process hearings. Educational advocates specialize in making recommendations about accommodations and services based on a student’s disabilities. In general, there can be a lot of overlap between the functions of lay and educational advocates.

Ultimately, if you can only hire one professional, consider hiring a special education advocate.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Special Education Advocacy and the Quality of Life

beach-22 textThere comes a moment when you realize that what you’re advocating for is more than just accommodations. You’re really advocating for someone’s quality of life. That’s the moment you realize you won’t give up.

We recently read this quote on Facebook from the Dyslexia Training Institute and immediately recognized how true it is. We experienced such a moment when our son was in elementary school and was struggling to read and demonstrate other essential academic skills at grade level. We knew that advocating for an appropriate education for him, which began in preschool, would have to go beyond just the few services and accommodations listed in his IEP. Even though his adult years were far into the future, we intuitively knew that our efforts to improve his education then were actually building a foundation for his future.

The basic concept of the federal special education law, IDEA, is that an appropriate education is the key to a productive life. Mastering academic skills opens many doors for learning and fulfilling dreams, which in turn makes for a productive citizen. This simple concept is a true and worthy ideal for a society that places value on each and every one of its members.

Sadly, there is an imperfect relationship between our society’s ideals and our society’s practices. In special education, the ideal, expressed in the concept of the Individualized Education Program, is that every child should receive an individualized education appropriate to that child’s abilities. The reality is that all too often schools offer these students only a “one size fits all” program that ends up fitting none of them.

We witnessed this reality over and over during our fifteen years in the special education system. We know of many young people who were on IEPs in public schools and received diplomas, only to be unprepared for life after high school graduation. Those who have made significant progress since graduation had parents who were strong advocates throughout their primary and secondary education.

We all want our children to feel satisfied with school, excited about learning, and happy to apply what they have learned. The goal is for them to become independent and productive adults. An education that prepares a student for life after high school, whether it is attending college or technical school, or living and working independently, contributes to that quality of life.

The bottom line is that your child’s future depends on your advocacy now, especially if your child is in special education. You may feel it is the school’s job to handle your child’s education and you shouldn’t have to be involved. We know from our experience that you must be fully involved.

We knew that despite the extra work of being our son’s advocates, we had to maximize our efforts. We found independent professionals who guided us with testing, accurate information, and critical support. When it became clear that the public school was not providing an appropriate education, we placed our son in a more appropriate school and sought reimbursement to hold our school district accountable for providing the free appropriate education they were required to give him by federal and state law.

All of this was up to us. It was not easy, but we never stopped trying. The result was that our son went from being a struggling student in elementary school to becoming a college graduate. This has had a major impact on his opportunities for the future.

Bear this in mind as you progress through the school year. In every Team meeting, every evaluation, and every teacher conference, you’re really advocating for your child’s future. Don’t ever give up!

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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“The Darker Voices of Humanity…” Thoughts on the 40th Anniversary of the Implementation of Chapter 766

In his foreword to our book, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work, Robert Crabtree wrote about the problems created for special education by budget conscious school administrators allied with political forces whose ideology includes reducing the tax burden of educating children at any cost. In his words, “seeking to interpret the words of state and federal special education law at the lowest possible level,” these forces are always trying to minimize the cost of special education. Among other techniques, he wrote, they do this by promoting prejudice against persons with disabilities. He concludes that “[t]hese forces tap into and speak, however subtly, for the darker voices of humanity.” Attorney Crabtree is one of the truly seminal figures in special education. He, along with his later law partner Lawrence Kotin, was largely responsible for writing the first comprehensive special education law, the Massachusetts Special Education Reform Act of 1972, known as Chapter 766. This statute was the model for the federal special education law that we now know as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As this September marks the 40th anniversary of the implementation of Chapter 766, it is clear that Attorney Crabtree knows what he is talking about.

A recent example of these darker voices appeared as an opinion piece in the August 5, 2013, edition of The Wall Street Journal. Authored by school attorney Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, and titled “‘Mainstreaming’ Special-Ed Students Needs Debate,” the article describes how the 14% of students in special education (based on national averages) consume a disproportionate amount of educational resources, both in terms of money and teacher services. This she blames, in part, on “an industry of parent attorneys and advocates,” and writes that when it comes to accessing a free appropriate public education, “no other group of students or parents enjoys such rights.”

By framing her argument in this manner, Attorney Freedman apparently wants readers to believe that education is a zero sum game in which IDEA and the other laws providing due process (and civil) rights for students in special education take resources away from students in regular education. She asks parents of the 86% to “understand” that “their kids may be shortchanged,” and wonders why these parents “opt out of any discussion and don’t complain.” In short, Ms. Freedman is not so subtly appealing to the fears of the majority and is essentially asking them to encourage their local school administrators and political representatives to “interpret the words of state and federal special education law at the lowest possible level.” If this seems like an unfair interpretation, at least one of the letter writers responding four days later received this message loud and clear. One Bob Foys of Chicago complained in his letter that anyone who questioned the effect of “this `entrenched and politically correct’ system [of special education]… will be shouted down by the `industry of parent attorneys and advocates’ as an uncaring heartless, bigoted elitist.” For him, and doubtless many more, Ms. Freedman has cleverly turned the real victims of educational discrimination into imaginary victimizers, a feat of true darkness.

Although Attorney Freedman does not say it explicitly, if “mainstreaming” is the problem that “merits discussion,” what is her solution, if not the removal of students with disabilities from the daily public school environment? Is she suggesting a return to the status quo prior to 1974 in which 80% of students with identified disabilities were excluded from education in public schools? In the early 1970s, many state laws still specifically excluded students who were deaf, blind, “mentally retarded,” or “emotionally disturbed” (to use the terms of the day) from getting any public education at all. Is that the standard we should return to? Certainly, educating children with special needs is expensive, however, it’s much cheaper than ignoring these children and allowing them to later become wards of the state.

Attorney Freedman has made other, more explicit, attempts to limit the rights of parents and students in the special education system. In 2011, Ms. Freedman persuaded several school districts in Massachusetts to ask parents to agree to a document called “Procedures Lite,” that she promoted as a way to “simplify” special education. By signing this document, parents waived their right to IEPs, IEP meetings, progress reports, and even worse, the right to a due process hearing, a “simplification” that benefited only the school districts. Happily, when the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found out about Procedures Lite, it “directed districts that have implemented the practice to discontinue it.”*

Special education and the rights of students with disabilities have come a long way in the last four decades, but the “darker voices of humanity” are always lurking in the shadows seeking to undo this progress. The best line of defense is for parents of children with disabilities to educate themselves about their child’s right to an appropriate public education and be prepared to ask questions and seek remedies whenever these rights are abridged.

Carson Graves and Judith Canty Graves

* Marcia Mittnacht, “Memorandum on Procedures Lite” Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, December 16, 2011. http://www.doe.mass.edu/news/news.aspx?id=6585.