Revamping Special Education

By Horn, Wade F.; Tynan, Douglas | The Public Interest, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview
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Revamping Special Education

Horn, Wade F., Tynan, Douglas, The Public Interest

PRIOR to the 1950s, the federal government was not routinely involved in the education of children with special needs. A few federal laws had been passed to provide direct educational benefits to persons with disabilities, mostly in the form of grants to states for residential asylums for the "deaf and dumb, and to promote education of the blind." These laws, however, were in the tradition of providing residential arrangements for persons with serious disabilities, services that had existed since colonial times.

Absent federal law, how-and even whether-children with disabilities were to be educated within the public schools was left to the discretion of the states and their local school districts. Although some public schools undoubtedly provided exceptional services to children with disabilities, others did not. Indeed, as recently as 1973, perhaps as many as one million students were denied enrollment in public schools solely on the basis of their disability.

This state of affairs changed dramatically in 1975 with the passage of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142). Renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, this landmark legislation mandated that children with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Critical components of the law include requirements for an initial evaluation to determine eligibility for services and accommodations, individual education planning, the provision of individualized services, and procedural safeguards to ensure the active involvement of a child's parents.

The good news is that IDEA has been largely successful in opening up educational opportunities for children with disabilities. The bad news is that IDEA, as too frequently happens with public-policy initiatives, has had some unintended negative consequences as well.

The growth of special education

In 1999-2000, 6.1 million children ages 3 to 21 years were found eligible for special-education services and accommodations, up from 3.7 million in 1976-77--an increase of 65 percent. The growing number of children in special education is not solely a function of an increase in the overall student population but also of a growth in the proportion of students claiming to be in need of special education. Specifically, 12.8 percent of the resident student population received special-education services and accommodations in 1997-98, compared to 8.3 percent of the resident student population in 1976-77.

There are several reasons why both the number and percentage of children identified as qualifying for special education under IDEA have grown so rapidly in recent decades. First, since passage of PL 94-142, both Congress and the Department of Education have responded to pressure from advocacy groups by broadening the definition of students eligible for special education. For example, children who are three to five years old are now eligible for services under the IDEA, as are children with autism and traumatic brain injuries.

Even more significantly, in 1991 the Department of Education issued a "policy clarification" indicating that children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be eligible for special-education services and accommodations under the "other health impaired" category of IDEA. On March 12, 1999, the department codified this policy clarification into law when it published regulations that, among other things, revised the definition of the "other health impaired" disability category by adding both ADD and ADHD as qualifying conditions. Given the extraordinary increase in the number of children diagnosed in recent years as having ADD or ADHD, the inclusion of these two diagnoses under "other health impaired" virtually assures continued growth in the number of students served through special education.

Second, the number of children identified under the category "specific learning disability," or SLD, has increased enormously.

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