Anniversary approaches for a revolutionary, imperfect disabilities law

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On November 29, teachers, parents, and students will quietly mark a huge milestone: the 35th anniversary of the passage of Public Law 94-142. Called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act when it was passed in 1975, it is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).

It’s hard to overestimate the impact that IDEA has had on schools and students. In 1970, U.S. schools educated only one in five children with disabilities, and many states had laws excluding students who were deaf or blind, emotionally disturbed, or cognitively impaired from public schools. Today, any state that accepts federal funding for students with disabilities (all 50 do) is required by law to provide a free, appropriate public education to all students, regardless of ability.

To me, this promise is personal: My cousin, a 46-year-old woman with Down Syndrome, was educated in county programs where she was isolated from her typical peers and expected to reach a low level of independence as an adult. Today, people with similar abilities and strengths are entering postsecondary education programs because of the higher expectations they have experienced in their schools. It’s impossible to know what my cousin might be doing today if she had been educated differently; she currently lives in a group home and works for a nonprofit that sells crafts worked by people with disabilities. Most of her living expenses are covered by state and federal programs.

As a parent of a child with a disability myself and a longtime advocate for the full inclusion of people with disabilities, I have on countless occasions observed that people with profound needs also have profound abilities when they are encouraged by their schools, their parents, and their communities to reach their full potential. A few years ago, a friend observed to me that “people with Down Syndrome are so much more high-functioning these days!” In fact, I don’t think that the nature of the disability has changed, but our attitudes toward it certainly have, thanks in large part to IDEA.

Still, even as the law has helped students achieve greater levels of independence, it has also been a massive broken promise. To help schools achieve the promises made with IDEA,  the federal government is supposed to provide additional funding to schools to help meet the cost of educating students with extra needs; that funding is set at 40 percent of average per-pupil spending nationally. However, the federal government has never met this funding obligation. For example, in fiscal 2008, the federal government’s IDEA obligation was $19.2 billion, but only $10.7 billion was actually allocated by Congress.

The failure to fund IDEA’s obligations is just one of the unintended consequences since it was passed. In his original message accompanying the signing of the 1975 version of the law, President Gerald Ford said:

Unfortunately, this bill promises more than the Federal Government can deliver, and its good intentions could be thwarted by the many unwise provisions it contains. Everyone can agree with the objective stated in the title of this bill – educating all handicapped children in our Nation. The key question is whether the bill will really accomplish that objective.

Ford was right. IDEA has spawned an entirely new branch of the law with complex regulations, exacting timeliness, and standards that mean different things to different people (parents define the term “appropriate public education” very differently than district administrators). Lawsuits abound because parents believe school districts are doing less than they should, while school districts believe parents are unreasonable in their demands for services. Both sides spend more than they should to win these legal battles, instead of spending that money and energy supporting children with profound needs and educating them for a world with ever-higher educational expectations.

In recent years, major school districts across the country, including Baltimore City Public Schools – which finally resolved a long-running lawsuit this year – as well as San Diego Unified School District and Seattle Public Schools, have acknowledged their failures to educate students with disabilities to an appropriate level of proficiency and have resolved to do better. In such a litigious environment, a public acknowledgment of failure is a bold step for a district to take, but it is the best way to rebuild trust with families and communities that believe they have been continually lied to and let down. In San Francisco, we’ve followed the lead of these other districts. Last month we released the highly critical findings of an independent audit of our special education programs, including the sobering observations that too few of our special education students are included in general education classes and that our special education caseload is disproportionately African American and Latino.

There is a huge amount of work to be done, and little money to fund that work. Ironically, the changeover of the House to Republican control might actually provide some resources to help districts like ours that are looking to restructure and improve their programs. Last year, the presumed chairman of the House Education & Labor Committee, Minnesota Congressman John Kline, penned an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune voicing strong support for full funding of IDEA. On the Senate side, Sen.-elect Mark Kirk of Illinois was a supporter of full funding while in the House, and is rumored to be interested in a seat on the Senate’s education committee.

Regardless of the future funding picture, my goal for IDEA’s 40th birthday is for students with disabilities in San Francisco Unified to be achieving at a much higher level; for our African American and Latino students to receive support much earlier so that their educational outlook improves; and for the segregation of students in self-contained special education classrooms to be ended. I would like to see us spend much less money on lawsuits and private school tuitions for students we have failed, and instead see us reinvest those resources into building a quality program.

Thirty-five years ago, the federal government drew a line in the sand, telling states that they could no longer shut some students out of their schools. The execution of that long-overdue ultimatum has been imperfect and frustrating, but there is no other choice but to keep improving conditions and outcomes for our students with disabilities. On this anniversary, I choose to focus on achieving IDEA’s vision of what can be rather than bemoaning the half-kept promises that have resulted so far.

Rachel Norton has served on the San Francisco Board of Education since January 2009. Prior to her election to the school board, she served as site council chair at her daughters’ elementary school, as a member of the SFUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, and as an active volunteer for Parents for Public Schools – San Francisco. In her professional life, she has worked as a writer and editor for Reuters Plc, The New York Times, CNet, and Fora.tv.

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