A Longitudinal Analysis of Shifting Policy Landscapes in Special and General Education Reform

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Over a 10-year period, three separate, but related, state-level policy initiatives were implemented in Vermont in an effort to reform special and general education through improving student performance and increasing the capacity of general education to support students in general education classrooms to the greatest extent possible. The first of these, known as Act 230, was designed to increase the capacity of general education teachers to serve students with disabilities and those at risk of academic failure in their classrooms, thereby reducing a perceived overreliance on the special education system (Kane et al., 1995). At the heart of the legislation was a mandate for the establishment of a comprehensive system of supports known as the Educational Support System (ESS) and within it, an interdisciplinary team known as the Educational Support Team (EST) that functioned as a prereferral team and a link to services and interventions available through the ESS. Other essential elements of Act 230 included (a) new and more restrictive eligibility requirements for special education, (b) provisions for greater flexibility in the use of special education and other support services funds so that students could receive services regardless of the presence or absence of a disability, and (c) state appropriation of 1% of the state's total special education funds for professional development related to increasing the capacity of general education to meet diverse student needs.

Between 1993 and 1994, a research study of outcomes associated with Act 230 was conducted jointly by the state Department of Education and the University of Vermont (Kane et al., 1995; Vermont State Board of Education, 1995). The study involved several research components, including a cross-case analysis of outcomes in four schools considered to be exemplars with respect to implementation and a statewide study of special education expenditures. It revealed four positive outcomes associated with Act 230's implementation in the four schools, each of which was considered to be aligned with the intent of the policy. These included (a) increased use of Educational Support Systems and Educational Support Teams, (b) increased use of in-class supports for special education service delivery, (c) integrated approaches to educational reform and professional development, and (d) decreases in the percentage of children eligible to receive special education services. The fifth outcome, an increase statewide in special education costs between 1990 and 1994, continued to raise concerns among policy-makers and practitioners.

In 1997, a second significant piece of reform legislation, Act 60, was enacted for the purpose of equalizing educational opportunities in Vermont. The Act contained two major provisions--the first related to finance reform, and the second related to implementation of standards-based reform. Historically, Vermont had relied on property taxes as a means to fund education, with resulting inequities in resources available to towns of varying property wealth. In an effort to rectify this situation, the first provision of Act 60 redistributed state funding for education so that all towns would be provided with a block grant based on an increased and equalized amount for per-pupil expenditures. The second major provision of Act 60 established state standards for curriculum and assessment and required schools to administer specific standards-based assessment measures in Grades 4, 8, and 10. In addition, schools were required to establish processes for public reporting of student assessment results and the development of local action plans for improvement based on local student performance on the mandated state assessments and other relevant data.

A third policy initiative, Act 117, was enacted by the Vermont legislature in 2000. Its purpose was to renew and expand on the Educational Support System model developed through Act 230 and to improve the consistency and cost-effectiveness of special education programs. …