.Nameplate February 2013 Issue
President's Corner                                           Page 46


Educating the Disabled:

The Long, Winding Road  



 Benny Gooden

Those who don’t remember a time when students with disabilities were not readily accepted in public schools don’t realize the progress we have made during almost four decades of evolving services for these students.

Forty years ago, a child who did not conform to expectations physically or mentally was summarily excluded from schools across America. Then, in 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act into law. The promise of a “free and appropriate public education” provided hope to parents and students who often had been left outside the mainstream of education.

Since then, services for students with disabilities have evolved from isolating them in separate buildings or schools to providing all-inclusive delivery models. Each change has brought more individualization of the education experience for students with disabilities — individualization that was envisioned by the federal act and carried forward by the volumes of regulations that followed. These included the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990.

With the focus on students with disabilities, special educators eagerly embraced the task at hand, while many traditional educators who lacked the special skills required to teach challenged learners struggled with the responsibilities now imposed on them. Nonetheless, the academic and social progress of students with disabilities has continued through the decades.

As the next IDEA reauthorization approaches, it is good to reflect upon the successes of the past, but we also must address the current challenges. These include policy and concept issues as well as the reality of limited resources juxtaposed against costly requirements.

There are conflicting expectations that academic achievement by students with disabilities will be based on their individualized education program rather than dictated and measured by a one-size-fits-all standard, which presents a great conundrum. The acknowledgment that these students have disparate needs and that those needs must be addressed by specific methods and measures is the foundation of the IDEA. Applying the universal assessments and performance standards used for the total population to a group of students whose very identification acknowledges these students require a unique approach frustrates students, parents and teachers alike.

The related concept of high school graduation is similarly perplexing. IDEA sanctions extending the period during which students with disabilities can remain in the public school setting as they work toward graduation. Applying the strict eight-semester graduation cohort standard mandated for all students to those whom IDEA and an IEP authorize to attend school through age 21 is a classic example of dueling federal standards that are detrimental to the very schools that must follow them.

Both of these policy-related issues must be addressed in the interest of students and the schools serving them.

The greatest difficulty local school districts have experienced since the passage of EHA and IDEA most likely has been the high cost of compliance and the failure of Congress to honor its pledge to fund more of the expense of mandated services. When the federal government articulated an initial target of federal funds equal to 40 percent of the national average per-pupil cost, schools anticipated a reasonable partnership in exchange for the broad and prescriptive mandates the law imposed.

Yet federal support has not reached even half of this target, while local expenses have continued to spiral upward. Many schools have been forced to cut essential programs.

Yes, the road to improved services for students with disabilities is marked by great milestones that chronicle our accomplishments. The challenge for the future is to straighten the curves to ensure a better pathway ahead.

Benny Gooden is AASA president for 2012-13. E-mail: bgooden@fortsmithschools.org 


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