The Legal Meaning of Specific Learning Disability for Special Education Eligibility
Zirkel, Perry A., Teaching Exceptional Children
Students with specific learning disability (SLD) continue to account for a higher proportion of all special education enrollments than any other classification under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). According to the latest reported data, in fall 2007 students with SLD amounted to 43.3% of all students with disabilities ages 6 to 21 under IDEA, down from the 50% average for the previous decade (Rehabilitation Research and TVaining Center, 2009).
Probably the most frequent topic in the special education literature since the 2004 amendments to IDEA has been the movement toward a responseto-intervention (RTI) approach for identifying students with SLD. The amendments expressly required each state to select RTl either as mandated or permitted for this purpose, and at the same time to designate the traditional approach of severe discrepancy as permitted or prohibited; and to determine whether an alternate, research-based approach would be allowed. According to the most recent survey of state laws, 12 states have adopted RTl as the required approach, whereas the vast majority of states permit both RTI and severe discrepancy-with approximately 20 states additionally allowing the third researchbased option- thereby effectively leaving the choice to local districts (Zirkel & Thomas, 2010).
A Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) monograph (Zirkel, 2006) comprehensively canvassed the litigationboth published hearing/review officer and court decisions- concerning SLD identification under IDEA. The major findings included (a) the total amounted to approximately 90 pertinent cases from 1980 to 2006, with about four fifths at the hearing/ review officer level; (b) the frequency of the decisions rose gradually during this period, with the majority arising in California (n = 20), Pennsylvania (n = 15), and New York [n = 11); and (c) school districts, typically defending the position that the child was not eligible as SLD, won approximately 80% of the cases, with the most frequent decisional factors being severe discrepancy (n = 68) or the need for special education (n = 31).
The purpose of this article is to provide an update of the frequency, outcomes, and basis of the published hearing/review officer decisions concerning SLD eligibility since the 2006 monograph. The specific questions include:
1. Have the upward slope and California predominance in frequency continued?
2. Has the trend of district-friendly outcomes changed?
3. Has RTI become a major decisional factor in these cases?
As in the CEC monograph (Zirkel, 2006), the primary database was the Individuals with Disabilities Law Reporter (IDELR)1 which is the most comprehensive publication of hearing/review officer and court decisions under IDEA. For court decisions, the Westlaw database served for double-checking that the identification of the relevant cases was complete and ascertaining the citations of any officially published cases.
The cases were limited to hearing/review officer and court cases in these two databases that specifically decided whether a student, upon initial evaluation or upon révaluation, qualified for special education services under the IDEA classification of SLD. Rulings as to other legal claims within the same case were not part of the tabulation. Examples ol" bordering cases that did not meet the selection criterion included those based on parental consent for an SLD evaluation [Chico Unified School District, 2009); failure to evaluate SLD for otherwise classified student where the issue was free appropriate public education (FAPE) (Department of Education v. L.K., 2006); language processing and writing problems in terms of the IDEA classification of speech and language impairment [Board of Education of Ossining Union Free School District, 2006); and a peripheral determination of SLD ineligibility (Brendan K. v. Easton Area School District, 2007; Strock v. Independent School District No. …