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Schools Failing Children With Disabilities

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Message Evelyn Pringle
In 1975, long before the current epidemic of developmental disorders began, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires public schools to identify children with disabilities and provide them with a need specific free education in the least restrictive environment.

Over the past decade, the costs of complying with the IDEA have skyrocketed and local school districts all over the country are scrambling to find money to meet the needs of disabled children in overflowing classrooms.

The nation's schools spent $78 billion to educate special education students in 1999-2000, which amounts to 21.4% of total spending for elementary and secondary education, according to the US Department of Education, Twenty-fourth Annual Report to Congress, What Are We Spending on Special Education Services (June 2004).

More than 6.4 million children, or 13.4%, of the public school enrollment receive special education services through IDEA, according to the US Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics 2003, Table 54 (December 2004).

The Fiscal Year 2006 Budget Summary, released by the Department of Education on February 7, 2005, shows payment for overall spending on education breaks down by percentage to Federal 8.2%, State 45.7%, Local 37.2%, and all other at 9%.

The Budget Summary, contains $11.1 billion for the Grants to States program, which is authorized under the IDEA, and makes formula grants that help States pay the additional costs of special education and related services to children with disabilities aged 3 through 21 years. This level of funding would provide an estimated average of $1,599 per student for about 6.9 million children.

That said, for years, federal funding to the states has proven to be wholly inadequate. According to the Department of Education's Twenty-fourth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the IDEA (2002), the vast majority of spending is paid for by state and local governments. In 1999-2000, for example, school districts received only $3.7 billion in federal assistance, or about $605 per student. This amounts to only 10.2% of the added costs imposed by IDEA.

The most expensive special education belongs to the disorder of autism, an incapacitating, lifelong disorder that affects a child's ability to interact with the outside world. As parents cope with the diagnosis, the major challenge they face is finding the right services for their children. Beginning at age 3, public schools are required to provide a free and appropriate education to autistic children.

What is the definition of appropriate? Under the IDEA, the "free appropriate public education" must include "special education and related services" tailored to meet the unique needs of a particular child."

Parents of course want the best for their children, while schools often provide adequate services only. It's a constant source of conflict in schools all over the country today.

The IDEA also contains a "mainstreaming" component, which requires states to establish "procedures to assure that, to the maximum extent appropriate, handicapped children . . . are educated with children who are not handicapped."

To comply with IDEA, school districts must establish an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student. An IEP is a written statement that is developed through a collaborative process by a team including teachers, school administrators, and the child's parents.

If parents believe that an IEP is inadequate, they may challenge it by requesting a "due process hearing." If parents are unhappy with the outcome of that proceeding, they may bring a civil action.

Courts are empowered under the IDEA "to order school authorities to reimburse parents for their expenditures on private special education for a child if the court ultimately determines that such placement, rather than a proposed IEP, is proper under the Act."

Prior to filing a lawsuit, parents have a right to challenge the educational services a school may or may not be providing a child in a due process hearing. Hearings are growing in number. For instance, in Pennsylvania, the Central Bucks school district had 19 of due process hearings in 2004 and North Penn district had 13.

Nationwide, in 2000, there were more than 3250 hearings, according to Project FORUM, National Association of State Directors of Special Education, Due Process Hearings: 2001 Update (April 2002).

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Evelyn Pringle is a columnist for OpEd News and investigative journalist focused on exposing corruption in government and corporate America.
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