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Friday, November 24, 2017

Trump Taps New Special Education Chief

From DisabilityScoop

By Shaun Heasley
November 16, 2017

The nation may soon be getting a new top special education official.

President Donald Trump said this week that he will nominate Johnny Collett to be assistant secretary of education for special education and rehabilitative services at the U.S. Department of Education.

This is Trump’s first effort since taking office earlier this year to fill the post which is tasked with overseeing the federal government’s implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and other laws.

Collett has most recently served as director of special education outcomes at the Council of Chief State School Officers. He previously was the special education director for the Kentucky Department of Education and has worked as a high school special education teacher.

“Johnny recognizes we must set high expectations and provide the necessary supports for each and every child to create a more equitable education system,” said Chris Minnich executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “He has experience at the national, state and local level that will be a strong asset to the U.S. Department of Education.”

Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has faced significant pushback on special education issues since being nominated for the post. At her confirmation hearing in January, DeVos admitted that she “may have confused it” when speaking about the IDEA.

Since then, she has weathered a firestorm of criticism over troubles with a key federal special education website and her department has withdrawn dozens of guidance documents it determined were “outdated, unnecessary or ineffective” related to educating students with disabilities.

“We are cautiously optimistic about the experience that Mr. Collett brings to the job,” Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, said in a statement.

“We look forward to the nomination process as the Senate vets Mr. Collett and urge great diligence on the part of the Senate to assure that Mr. Collett stands ready to do his part to support the secretary and assure (the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services) fulfills its obligations to students and families.”

Collett must be confirmed by the Senate before he can officially assume the assistant secretary position.

Special Education Enrollment Increases in Texas in Wake of Newspaper Investigation

From Education Week's Blog
"On Special Education"

By Christina Samuels
November 10, 2017

Texas's special education enrollment grew by about 14,000 students in the 2016-17 school year, the same year the Houston Chronicle published an investigation on the state's policy of scrutinizing districts whose special education enrollment went over 8.5 percent.

The state's special education enrollment is now around 477,000 students, or 8.9 percent of the state's public school students, the Houston Chronicle reported Friday. At the time the Chronicle published its investigation in 2016, the state had the lowest percentage of students in special education of all 50 states—exactly 8.5 percent, when the nationwide average was around 13 percent.

The state has said that it did not have a cap on special education, but had set 8.5 percent as a "benchmark" for districts, and a way to prevent school systems from placing children in special education who might be better served through other programs.

Administrators, teachers and parents, however, told the Chronicle that they struggled to get services to children who needed them.

The Texas Education Agency removed the benchmark in November, and earlier this year state legislature passed a law preventing the state from creating such caps or benchmarks in the future.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving, Y'all"

The Trump Administration’s Slow But Steady Undoing of the Department of Education

From the Center for American Progress

By Coleton Whitaker, Abel McDaniels, and Stephenie Johnson
November 20, 2017

President Donald Trump stands with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos
as he arrives to speak during a school choice event in the Roosevelt
Room of the White House in Washington, May 3, 2017.

Nearly one year ago, on November 23, 2016, then-President-elect Donald Trump announced that he would nominate Betsy DeVos, a pay-for-play billionaire with no experience working in public schools, to be his secretary of education. This move signaled to students, parents, educators, and public school advocates that Trump intended to make good on his promise to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education.

During his 2016 campaign, Trump rarely mentioned education except to call repeatedly to eliminate the department or to chastise urban public schools and districts. Once in office, he quickly nominated DeVos to turn his campaign rallying cry into a reality.

Historically, the Department of Education has worked to make sure that students are prepared for an increasingly global economy by providing supplemental funds to support students in low-income schools, students with disabilities, and other students who are historically underserved; distributing and monitoring trillions of dollars in funds to help students pursue higher education; and collecting and disseminating data about the nation’s schools.

The department also protects students by ensuring that factors such as race, income, language, sexual orientation, and disability are not barriers to high-quality schooling.

Over the past year, however, President Trump and Secretary DeVos have proven again and again that they have little regard for the nation’s public education system and the role of the Department of Education in protecting vulnerable students and supporting and improving public schools.

Here are seven signs that Trump and DeVos are slowly but steadily making good on their promise to diminish the Department of Education.

1.) Trump nominated the most unqualified secretary of education in U.S. history.

President Trump’s efforts to scale back the role of the Department of Education began soon after his election, when he announced his intention to nominate Betsy DeVos for secretary of education. Despite his own lack of knowledge about education, Trump selected DeVos, who has arguably the least amount of experience in public education of any former education secretary.

According to EdWeek, DeVos has not attended or worked in public schools, and her children have never attended public schools. After a fiercely fought confirmation battle during which she showcased her lack of knowledge about the U.S. education system, DeVos was confirmed as secretary of education after Vice President Mike Pence cast a historic tiebreaking vote in her favor in early February 2017.

Much of the pushback from critics centered on DeVos’ limited experience in the education sector and her role as a billionaire megadonor to many of the congressional members who would eventually vote in her favor. Indeed, she made $115,000 in personal donations to sitting Republican senators who voted on her confirmation and admitted that it is “possible” her family has donated $200 million to the Republican Party.

Furthermore, at an education convention in 2015, Secretary DeVos voiced her view that the “government really sucks.” And after just one month on the job, DeVos said in an interview that “[i]t would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job,” showing her willingness to cut the role of the secretary of education.

And Trump’s nominee for deputy secretary, Mitchell “Mick” Zais, said that he was “unaware” of research showing that students who received vouchers in states such as Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., performed worse on tests than their public school peers. Following in DeVos’ footsteps, Zais demonstrated that he, too, has little to no understanding of well-known research about student outcomes under voucher programs—a policy which he, like DeVos, supports.

2.) Trump and DeVos proposed drastically cutting the Department of Education’s budget.

In their first budget proposal, released in May, President Trump and Secretary DeVos slashed 13.6 percent, or $9.2 billion, of the Department of Education’s funding. This funding supports essential programs that train, support, and pay teachers and provide after-school programs for low-income children and families, among other things.

Their budget proposal also outlined plans to cut the staff of critical Department of Education offices—such as the Office for Civil Rights—by 40 percent.

Budgets reflect an administration’s priorities and values, and this budget proposal made it clear that Trump and DeVos simply do not value public education or the department’s role in supporting critical programs.

3). Trump and DeVos want to redirect funding for public schools into the private system.

In addition to these massive cuts, President Trump and Secretary DeVos also proposed in their budget proposal using $250 million to create a federally funded, nationwide school voucher program. Years of research have shown that private school vouchers are not an effective or equitable way to improve the nation’s schools. Because of geographic and demographic realities, for example, vouchers are not viable in most of the country.

Worse still, vouchers have not been shown to improve the quality of education for the students who use them. In fact, several studies have shown that they make things worse.

Indiana students who received vouchers to attend a private school actually moved backward on reading and math tests compared with students who remained in public school. Similarly, a study of Washington, D.C.’s, voucher program found no significant difference in test scores between students who received vouchers and those who did not.

4.) DeVos has repeatedly refused to protect all students.

Secretary DeVos disregards her department’s obligation to protect all students from discrimination. In one of her first decisions as secretary of education, in February, she rejected the Obama administration’s position that nondiscrimination laws require schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice. Rescinding this guidance sent a signal that the administration would not stand up for students’ civil rights.

Later, when testifying before the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies in defense of the budget proposal, Secretary DeVos declined to say whether the Department of Education would intervene if schools receiving federal funding discriminated against students.

DeVos also demonstrated utter confusion about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act during her confirmation hearing in January, saying that states should be allowed to decide whether schools should get taxpayer funding if they do not follow federal law.

5.) DeVos is rolling back protections for sexual assault victims.

In June, Secretary DeVos announced her department’s plan to scale back the Obama administration’s approach to investigating civil rights complaints. The prior administration issued guidance reminding universities of their obligation to protect students from sexual violence and clarifying requirements for necessary procedures.

Earlier, DeVos’ acting top civil rights official, Candice Jackson, disregarded “90 percent” of victim’s claims as mistaken drunken hookups. In a speech, DeVos confirmed her intention to roll back the Obama administration’s approach because it “weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students.”

In September, Secretary DeVos followed through on her stated plans by completely rescinding the Obama-era Title IX protections and offering interim guidance, which together allow colleges to decide what standard of proof they will use to investigate claims of sexual assault and misconduct.

The new guidance has come under fire, with the organization Equal Means Equal and three additional plaintiffs bringing a federal lawsuit against DeVos and her Department of Education for issuing rules that they claim violate Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Administrative Procedure Act, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the equal protection clause of the Massachusetts Constitution.

6.) Betsy DeVos unilaterally eliminated guidance she deemed ‘unnecessary’.

In her attempt to undermine the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos scrapped nearly 600 guidance documents, including more than 70 that her department deemed “outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective” pertaining to the rights of students with disabilities.

Among other things, the now-rescinded guidance provided schools, parents, and disability rights advocates with information on the rights of students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

By eliminating hundreds of guidance documents with no explanation or transparency about the decisions, DeVos is undermining a core function of her department—to provide states and districts with support in serving all students.

In particular, DeVos’ elimination of guidance pertaining to how schools should use federal money for special education services in schools has given disability rights advocates serious cause for concern. As reported by The Washington Post, “Lindsay E. Jones, the chief policy and advocacy officer for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said she was particularly concerned to see guidance outlining how schools could use federal money for special education removed.”

7.) DeVos is shrinking the Education Department workforce.

Secretary Devos recently offered buyouts to 255 employees to shrink key offices in the Education Department’s workforce—a move aligned with President Trump’s March executive order urging the downsizing of departments and agencies. Although buyouts themselves are not unusual, what’s more concerning is that the broader understaffing of Education Department offices compromises their ability to perform key functions.

For example, just 14 staffers are working on more than 87,000 borrower defense claims by students defrauded by “predatory” colleges. In addition, DeVos has proposed cutting staff from the Office for Civil Rights—the office responsible for addressing discrimination complaints, which have risen to record levels under President Trump. This means that investigators from the Office for Civil Rights would each handle 42 cases as opposed to the 26 they are projected to be handling now.

The Department of Education is largely understaffed, and DeVos’ actions make it clear that she is sabotaging the Education Department’s ability to function by not only downsizing crucial department staff but also refusing to allow department offices to do their jobs and meet their full responsibilities.


Supporting and protecting the nation’s students should be a priority of every president and secretary of education. This administration’s actions, however, clearly demonstrate that it is willing to sacrifice critical resources for the nation’s most vulnerable students to push an ideologically driven agenda.

This intentional erosion of the Department of Education’s role is alarming and should be seen for what it is: a deliberate attack on U.S. public schools and critical student protections.

By proposing a smaller budget, moving public funds to private schools, and withdrawing necessary protections, President Trump and Secretary DeVos are intentionally creating a department with fewer resources and less capacity to support America’s public schools and all the students who attend them.

Coleton Whitaker is the campaign coordinator at the Center for American Progress. Abel McDaniels is a research assistant for K-12 Education at the Center. Stephenie Johnson is the associate campaign director of K-12 Education at the Center.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Race, Class Contribute to Disparities in Autism Diagnoses

From Spectrum News

By Hannah Furfaro
November 20, 2017

The prevalence of autism continues to increase across the United States, regardless of socioeconomic class, according to a new study (1). Overall, black and Hispanic children are less likely than their white peers to have an autism diagnosis.

The findings highlight persistent racial disparities in autism prevalence: White children are about 19 percent more likely than black children and 65 percent more likely than Hispanic children to be diagnosed with autism.

Autism prevalence in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2002. Researchers have looked to changes in the condition’s diagnostic definition and greater awareness among parents as possible explanations for this rise.

They have also assumed that access to good schools and medical care would explain much of why white children and those of high socioeconomic status are more likely than black and Hispanic children and those of low socioeconomic status to be diagnosed with autism.

The new study upended many of these assumptions.

The findings suggest that socioeconomic status doesn’t fully explain the differences in prevalence across race and ethnicity.

“Everything is a little bit more complicated than we thought,” says Maureen Durkin, lead researcher and professor and interim chair of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We’ve been trying to understand the racial and ethnic difference in prevalence, and it isn’t so simple as that it’s explained by social class."

Prevalence Climbs

Durkin and her colleagues analyzed surveillance data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. The CDC database includes health and education records for more than 1.3 million children at age 8. Of those, the clinicians identified 13,396 children who either had an autism diagnosis or would meet the criteria for a diagnosis.

The team used census data on the proportion of adults with college degrees in a neighborhood as a proxy for socioeconomic status. They stratified the results by race and ethnicity to determine whether socioeconomic status alters their findings on prevalence.

Graph by Nigel Hawtin

Autism prevalence rose almost evenly among high-, middle- and low-socioeconomic groups between 2002 and 2010, the researchers found. The rates increased from 3.9 to 9.3 per 1,000 children in the low-socioeconomic group, from 6.2 to 11.6 in the middle class and from 7.9 to 13.4 in the high-socioeconomic group.

This was a surprise. The research team had expected that prevalence in the high-socioeconomic group in 2002 was “the true prevalence” and that the numbers for that class would stabilize over time, Durkin says. “But it really didn’t.”

Across the classes, prevalence roughly doubled in the three racial and ethnic groups: It rose from 6.7 per 1,000 children to 13.2 among white children, from 5.9 to 11.1 among black children and from 3.9 to 8 among Hispanic children.

This suggests that autism awareness and access to services are increasing across racial and ethnic groups, but the prevalence among minority children still lags behind that of white children.

Persistent Gaps

When the researchers looked more closely within each racial and ethnic group, they found that differences in prevalence across socioeconomic classes either stayed the same or became smaller.

For instance, the difference in prevalence between low- and high-income white children decreased over the study period. This suggests low-income white families are becoming more aware about autism over time, Durkin says.

Among blacks and Hispanics, however, the gap between low- and high-socioeconomic classes remained level.

Surprisingly, the rate of autism among black children in the high socioeconomic group was higher than that among white or Hispanic children between 2002 and 2010.

“It’s intriguing that in higher-social-class blacks, there’s no shortage of autism,” Durkin says. “Black children are much more likely to be in the low-socioeconomic group than white children,” she says. The finding supports the idea that lack of access to diagnostic services contributes to the overall lower prevalence of autism in black children.

There is no biological reason for autism prevalence to differ across racial and ethnic groups, says Katharine Zuckerman, associate professor of general pediatrics at Oregon Health and Science University, who was not involved in the research.

“The fact that we continue to see this in all of our prevalence studies in the U.S. suggests to me that we really just don’t know what the true prevalence of this condition is, particularly among minority kids,” she says.

Parents in some groups may be less concerned or aware about autism, and may not seek out a diagnosis for their child, says Craig Newschaffer, director of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia. Newschaffer was not involved in the study but wrote a commentary about the work in the same issue of the journal (2).

Another study published this month suggests black parents report fewer concerns about social problems, repetitive behaviors and other autism features than white parents do (3).

Language barriers may contribute to the lower prevalence among Hispanic children. A study from October showed that a child’s race or ethnicity isn’t related to the time between diagnosis and treatment (4).

Parental age may also contribute to the disparities. Advanced paternal age is associated with an increase in autism risk, and fathers of white children tend to be older than those of black or Hispanic children.


  1. Durkin M.S. et al. Am. J. Public Health 107, 1818-1826 (2017) PubMed
  2. Newschaffer C.J. Am. J. Public Health 107, 1698-1699 (2017) PubMed
  3. Donohue M.R. et al. Autism Epub ahead of print (2017) PubMed
  4. Yingling M.E. et al. J. Autism Dev. Disord. Epub ahead of print (2017) PubMed

A Parent’s Plea: My 8-Year-Old Wants to Ride the Big Yellow Bus with Her Friends, but Her School District Says That’s Impossible

via The 74 Million

By Beth Hawkins
November 17, 2017

"As adults, we need to focus on meeting each child where they are at. If we expect that at some time in the future they will be adults living and working in our community, why not give them tools to grow?"

Meet Melissa Davis, the parent of a lovely young woman whose journey through special education in school I’ve been privileged to follow. And on whose shoulder I’ve cried a moment or two when my parallel trip has hit speed bumps.

Those of us who love and advocate for children with disabilities spend a lot of time comparing notes about the principle of inclusion, which means always, always, always erring on the side of making it possible for a student to participate in the same activities as their peers without disabilities.

This is rarely as expedient for the adults in charge of the system as “managing” our children via a separate process, so we spend a lot of time pushing for things that to others may seem inconsequential.

We want our children to reach their full academic potential, and we also want them to have someone to joke around with at lunch, teachers who see their quirky behaviors as coping mechanisms and not defiance and a community that sees their strengths.

In addition to being a Minnesota warrior mother, Melissa is a graduate of Partners in Policymaking, a terrific program sponsored by the state that builds advocacy capacity among people with disabilities and their family members. As such, she’s got a terrific understanding of how special ed can fail to deliver on its promise to tailor each child’s experience to their unique needs. She has refused to accept lackluster compromises for her daughter. 

Melissa’s current struggle involves her daughter’s desire to ride the regular bus to school with her friends instead of the special ed bus. The district has responded with nonsensical and arbitrary reasons why they can’t (won’t?) accommodate the girl. The tussle has been going on for months now.

This is an important request for two reasons:

One, federal civil rights law guarantees the girl the right to the least restrictive placement possible, which rephrased in regular-person language means that she is to be included with her neurotypical peers as often and as much as she’s able.

Two, which bus she takes is an important part of the girl’s identity. My own son loved the special ed bus because he has sensory issues and appreciated the quiet. Melissa’s daughter doesn’t feel that way. If we can understand that the bathroom a child uses, or the right to sit with the other kids at lunch, are foundational to their self-image, why can’t we figure it out with regard to the bus?

Anyhow, here are Melissa’s own words about her daughter:

"My 8-year-old daughter Jayanna is my hero. I say this because at the age of 2, Jayanna was diagnosed with autism. At the time of her diagnosis Jayanna was non-verbal, struggled daily with sensory overload and the frustration of being unable to communicate. For the next six years, she fought tirelessly through therapies and interventions to now be in a general education classroom with special education services.

This brave little girl wakes up every single day and faces struggles that most will never understand. She never gives up and does it all with a smile on her face. As parents, we tend to have a bias toward our own child’s greatness, but I see Jayanna’s spirit as all the best qualities that are missing in today’s world. Her perseverance, empathy, and gentle spirit are all things that make her exceptional.

Since she started school in St. Paul at the age of 4, Jayanna has been celebrated as a positive member of her classroom and school community. Inclusion in the general education classroom hasn’t always been easy, but at those difficult times is when as a team we addressed issues with added support for Jayanna that would mean more one-on-one time with a paraprofessional or accommodations. Adding these extra supports not only allowed her to be in a classroom with her peers, but provided her the confidence needed to be successful academically.

Despite my daughter’s proven success in inclusive environments with supports, her general education busing was replaced with special ed busing once we moved to a new district. Even though she has ridden a general ed bus with the assistance of a bus aide since she was 4, she is being denied the ability to do so in her new school.

My sweet child who only five years ago could not verbalize her feelings tells me daily how much she wants to be with her peers. One would think that proven success, a child’s request, and a mandate called least restrictive environment would be enough. Well, sadly, it is not.

In the decades since society has moved away from institutionalizing and segregating people with disabilities, there has been a new focus on person-centered planning. The idea is that people with disabilities are individuals with unique needs and abilities. The school district’s desire to provide the support most convenient to the adults in the system, and not our kids, does not promote the equality that our country takes pride in.

I am by no means saying special ed busing should be abolished. For some students, it works well and they enjoy the smaller group of students riding with them. Once again, each student is an individual.

As adults, we need to focus on meeting each child where they are at. If we expect that at some time in the future they will be adults living and working in our community, why not give them tools to grow?"

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Why Aren’t More Students with Disabilities Graduating On Time?

From The Hechinger Report
via DisabilityScoop

By Sarah Butrymowicz and Jackie Mader
The Hechinger Report

November 15, 2017

As a teenager, Michael McLaughlin wanted to go to college. He had several disabilities, including dyslexia and bipolar disorder, which threatened to make the road ahead more difficult. He sometimes had trouble paying attention in class and understanding directions.

He also had an IQ of 115 — on the upper ranges of what is considered average. With help, he should have been able to graduate alongside his classmates, ready to pursue higher education.

But instead of graduating from Bartlett High School in Anchorage, Alaska, in four years, he took six. After high school, he did odd jobs for several years.

“Our son’s education was a waste,” Michelle McLaughlin, his mother, said. “We could get no one to listen or do what was needed.”

Experts say that almost all students with disabilities are capable of
graduating high school fully prepared to tackle college or a career,
yet just 65 percent of them graduate on time. (Thinkstock)

There are 6.6 million public school children enrolled in special education in the United States, 13 percent of all public school students. Kids like Michael make up the vast majority of them. Their disabilities shouldn’t keep them from achieving the same standards as their peers — and experts estimate that up to 90 percent of students with disabilities are capable of graduating high school fully prepared to tackle college or a career if they receive proper support along the way.

Yet, just 65 percent of students in special education graduate on time, well below the 83 percent four-year rate for American students overall. Many of those that do earn their diplomas find themselves unprepared for the real world. After high school, students with disabilities have lower college graduation rates than their peers and earn less once they join the workforce.

“For many children with disabilities, they’re capable of far more than their schools give them credit for,” said Kitty Cone, a special education lawyer who works in Arkansas. Their education “falls far short of what federal law requires or even what common sense dictates.”

In interviews with 45 parents and students and more than 50 other experts, advocates and lawyers across 34 states and the District of Columbia, families and advocates described systemic problems with special education in high school.

They spoke of teachers inadequately trained to support students in special education. Of districts lacking the funding to provide needed supports. Of expectations lowered to the point where they do students more harm than good. Of very capable students being pushed into “alternate” diploma programs, limiting their future options. Of students not being taught the soft skills, like communication and organization, that they’ll need in college and the workforce. And of parents who either don’t know what their children’s rights are or feel forced to fight long battles to make schools comply with the law.

Special education is a broad umbrella. It includes students with specific learning disabilities (such as dyslexia and dysgraphia), hearing and vision impairments, emotional disabilities, autism and more severe cognitive delays. Students’ needs vary greatly by disability, and even two students with the same disability may need different supports to keep up with their peers.

In some cases, that means being given more time on tests or being offered the option of using technology for written assignments; in other cases it means having an aide in the classroom working with them individually.

Experts and parents widely agree that most students with disabilities do best academically and socially when they are in the same classrooms as their typically-developing peers, and when they are given the same opportunities to plan out their postsecondary lives. Even students with cognitive delays may be able to attend modified post-secondary programs if given adequate preparation and encouragement in school.

But too often, schools aren’t providing students with the appropriate help.

Janae Cantu has dyslexia and thus struggles with reading. Her disability doesn’t mean she can’t analyze and discuss a text; she can be taught strategies to help her decode words more easily. But, instead of getting that kind of instruction or preparing for college-level work with her peers, she left her general education classes in Oklahoma for one period every day in ninth grade to go to a special education class where students did activities like making cars out of cereal boxes and racing them.

Mark Nelson also has dyslexia, along with dysgraphia, which means he has trouble writing. Rather than being challenged, he was allowed to use a teacher-made study guide while taking exams at his California high school. He said he never had to study or actually learn anything to get an A. One time, a teacher gave his special education world history class all of the answers to their final exam.

Tyrone Colson is on the autism spectrum. His high school placed him on a track to get an alternative diploma, which would have made it impossible for him to enroll in most colleges or apply for most jobs. His mother fought the decision, and he graduated from his Washington, D.C., high school with a traditional diploma, proving that his disability didn’t prevent him from meeting the same standards as his peers.

Sean Sieleni, who has Down syndrome, was exclusively enrolled in general education classes for 11th grade, where he successfully studied with his peers, completed homework and took modified exams. Yet a teacher suggested that Sean should stop taking academic classes and have a “fun” senior year. Instead, his mom worked with the school district administrators to expand their expectations for Sean, and he re-enrolled in general education classes for 12th grade.

Kenyatta Burns, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder, was able to grasp grade-level material — she just needed a bit more help staying focused and completing long assignments. Instead, she was passed from class to class at her high school in North Carolina. When she dropped out at the end of ninth grade, she didn’t know how to use punctuation or do multiplication.

Such negative experiences can have lasting consequences.

Parent and special education advocate Sri Hatharasinghe-Gerschler recalls teachers telling her she’d never go to college when she was in middle school in the mid-1990s. Hatharasinghe-Gerschler had been diagnosed with a reading comprehension disability in elementary school. She said she never got the help she needed or was taught strategies to work on comprehension. Instead, her high school placed her in remedial courses for math and English, where she just fell further behind. Her parents hired a tutor to help her.

After she graduated from high school, she enrolled in a junior college to study child development while working full time. Two years later, she transferred to the University of California, San Diego.

Post-graduation, Hatharasinghe-Gerschler provided in-home behavioral services for students with disabilities and now helps parents and students navigate the special education system. At age 34, despite her ultimate success, she said her understanding of grammar and writing remains so poor that she still feels angry about her experiences in the classroom. The system, she said, “failed me.”

For years, many parents and students said, the system has denied their legal rights. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which passed in 1975, all students in special education are entitled to a “free and appropriate education” that will allow them to reach their fullest potential. Technically, the U.S. Department of Education is responsible for monitoring state compliance with IDEA.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos raised eyebrows in January during her confirmation hearing when she said that requiring taxpayer-funded schools to follow IDEA was “a matter best left to the states.” When pressed later on in the hearing if she was aware that IDEA is federal law, she said she “may have confused it.”

Not long after, the Department of Education overhauled the IDEA website. In a July speech, DeVos reaffirmed that she believed special education was important. “Ensuring that all children with disabilities have appropriately ambitious goals and the chance to meet challenging objectives is a priority for the department,” DeVos said.

Since then, the department has eliminated 72 guidance documents that dealt with the rights of students in special education. At least two dealt directly with the transition from high school to college or career. The department said the documents were “outdated, unnecessary or ineffective.”

The department did not respond to a request for comment on the rescinded transition guidelines or the administration’s plans for IDEA oversight.

At a local level, courts and state education departments often play an important role in making sure special education law is followed. They have found districts guilty of many violations of the federal law, including isolating children with special needs from their peers and, in the case of one South Carolina district, shortening the school day for students in special education.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a student with autism whose parents accused a Colorado school district of not doing enough to help their son meet his educational goals. The court ruled that students with disabilities must be provided an “appropriately ambitious” education. “A student offered an education program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts in a unanimous ruling.

That ruling “reinforced that you can’t educate children based on stereotypes,” said U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., who sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. She has a son with cerebral palsy and has focused on special education throughout her political career. “We all want our kids, no matter how they learn or what their physical condition is, we want them to be challenged to reach their full potential.”

The quality of special education services can differ vastly from district to district. “We tend to see the same districts over and over again,” Cone, the Arkansas special education lawyer, said. “I still think that they’re lazy in general and they will continue to try to play the odds that they won’t get sued.”

For every reported case in which a school or district is taken to court, experts and lawyers said there are many more in which families never realize they have the right to fight for better conditions for their children.

“Once they’re given this diagnosis, (schools) can use it and say, ‘Oh your kid has autism so they can’t be in a mainstream class,'” advocate Hatharasinghe-Gerschler said. “Parents that don’t know any better fall into this trap and say, ‘Fine.'”

Parents who do know better often don’t want to deal with the hassle of months or years of court battles, or may not have the time or resources to do so. Many parents said that advocating for their children’s rights can feel like a full-time job.

Even when students get the services to which they’re entitled, some parents said, schools and teachers don’t grasp how individual disabilities affect different children differently or have reasonable expectations for what their children should be able to do.

Oftentimes, parents find themselves not only advocating, but problem-solving as well. Back in Anchorage in the early 2000s, Michelle McLaughlin started doing research on her own to determine why her son, Michael, was falling further behind in elementary school.

Every student in special education is assigned an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which describes the student’s current ability level, sets goals and details any accommodations they will need for classes and exams. Schools are supposed to revise the IEP document annually in partnership with the student’s parents and conduct a barrage of assessments to re-evaluate the child’s disability classification every three years.

Over the course of Michael’s education career, he received some help, such as a class with other students with mood disorders in which he worked on communicating and controlling his behavior. Michael’s IEP allowed him to work in small groups, have extended time on assessments and use a computer for written assignments. But he still struggled. McLaughlin said that at one point school officials delayed updating his IEP for several months.

Her research turned up strategies, like using sheet protectors to outline the page, which helped him focus, and trying to decode words from the beginning instead of from the middle — strategies she said his teachers were unaware of. With these strategies in place, McLaughlin said, Michael was able to focus and comprehend more when reading.

Margie Gillis, president of Literacy How, a Connecticut-based group that trains teachers and administrators in literacy instruction, said that what Michael and students like him really need is “explicit and systematic instruction in the structure of language.” Unfortunately, she added, teachers often don’t know how to address this — a problem that stems from teaching preparation programs.

Special education is a matter of neuroscience: the brains of students with disabilities work differently than those of students in general education. Many students and adults with disabilities interviewed explained how they process information in a particular way. Experts say that teachers need to learn the physiological differences in order to effectively teach their students. A lack of understanding often results in an assumption that students can’t handle academic material.

Yet general education teachers rarely have much training in special education. Few teacher education programs require more than one class on students with disabilities. Meanwhile, special education teachers have to balance completing extensive federal paperwork with planning lessons and teaching classes. And they aren’t always taught everything they need to know to handle the full range of disabilities they face in the classroom, or even, Gillis said, how to teach reading to children with different neurological obstacles.

Carole Banks, a special education teacher at a charter school in California, said that the only reason she felt prepared during her first year of teaching was because she’d worked as an assistant special education teacher for five years prior to going to school for her teaching degree.

“My program, they tried, but if I hadn’t had experience, I would have just been feeling like I was thrown in the middle of an ocean with no life raft,” she said.

Banks works in a resource lab for students in special education who are mainstreamed in general education classes; they come to see her for one period each day. She said she holds her students to the same standards as their general education peers. But she’s had to do research on her own to find strategies for how to help them cope with their disabilities. And the schools she’s worked for have not had the funding to send her to an expensive training session for a reading program she believes would be extremely helpful.

“In every setting I’ve worked in, special ed has been the red-headed stepchild,” Banks said. “I wish that special education services were more respected and people knew how much special education teachers do.”

Many parents interviewed expressed frustration that special education teachers aren’t better supported and said that the root of the problem is not individual teachers in the classroom but administrators’ lack of understanding and districts’ lack of incentive: special education services are usually expensive to provide.

Under IDEA, the federal government is supposed to fund 40 percent of the “excess cost” of educating children with disabilities — meaning the money above and beyond what’s needed for a general education student. The government has never reached that target, forcing school districts to make up the difference — when they can afford it.

In fiscal year 2015, the federal government gave states about $12 billion, or 16 percent of the excess costs, according to a report by the New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy institute. To reach the 40 percent target would require roughly $18 billion more, the report said.

Senator Hassan said she plans to push for full funding during the next budget process.

“Nobody likes to be the family or the child whose special education needs create budget cuts in other parts of the school budget,” she said. “We know how important it is to make sure that investments in education don’t fall just on local and state taxpayers.”

When Michael McLaughlin was in sixth grade, his mother gave up on the public schools and began to homeschool him. But by tenth grade, she worried that he was missing out on the opportunity to communicate and work with his peers, an important skill his autism diagnosis made even more critical. Michael returned for half days. His special education teachers worked with him on the goals that they’d laid out in his IEP.

“A lot of it was socialization,” McLaughlin said about her decision to send him back to school. “Another part of it was … I didn’t feel like he was getting enough with homeschooling with me. We were just concerned with what his education was going to be.”

McLaughlin worried that he wouldn’t be prepared for college. He enrolled full time in 11th grade. At first, the district wanted to put Michael on a track to earn a certificate of attendance. Unlike a GED, a certificate is not equivalent to a high school diploma and is not accepted by most colleges and employers. Certificates of attendance are designed for students with severe cognitive limitations who cannot meet high school academic standards.

Experts say there is little accountability to make sure districts aren’t limiting students like Michael — who, with special education supports, can handle a rigorous high school curriculum — to those alternate certificates.

McLaughlin said that the school also wanted him to transition into a life skills program. Life skills programs are designed for students with ability levels and IQs far below Michael’s. He would have learned independent living skills, like doing laundry and grocery shopping.

“That just made absolutely no sense to us,” McLaughlin said.

Michael’s family insisted that he earn a regular diploma, even if it took him a little longer than other students. He ended up repeating a year of high school to earn more credits. (Under IDEA, special education students are allowed to stay in public schools up to the age of 21.) He graduated in 2013.

Bartlett High School principal Sean Prince said he can’t speak to the details of Michael’s experience because he did not become the school’s principal until 2014, a year after Michael graduated. But he said he feels “helpless” that he couldn’t do something to help Michael.

“I wish we could have helped more,” Prince said. “I hate that (Michael’s) mom still has bad feelings about this. … It really makes me feel bad if she felt we weren’t doing a good job because we try to meet the needs of students every day.”

Now 24, Michael is enrolled in a three-year painting apprenticeship. His dad works as a foreman at a painting company and has hired Michael. He’ll continue to work for his dad when he completes the program.

McLaughlin said Michael likes the program. But she said his experiences at school hurt him in more ways than limiting his future career and education options. “It’s impacted him in every possible way that it can,” McLaughlin said. “The biggest thing my son still struggles with, to this day, is his feeling of self-worth.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.