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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Tragedy of an Inappropriate Education

From Parents Have The Power
to Make Special Education Work

By Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves
February 22, 2017

Education is the foundation of a productive and fulfilling life. Education teaches us to read, think, process, and analyze information. When taught these skills, individuals can learn, grow, and develop into contributing members of society. We can all agree that this is the goal of an appropriate education.

But when is an education “appropriate,” and who decides what is appropriate?

For many children without disabilities, a general education curriculum is appropriate. For children with disabilities, deciding what constitutes an appropriate education is a critical question. School districts and families grapple with this question all the time.

The Goal of Special Education

The federal law that defines special education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), has 14 qualifying disabilities that entitle a child to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Once a child is deemed eligible under IDEA, the law states that the child’s education must be “designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living.” [20 U.S.C. § 1400 (d)(1)(B)]

In other words, the law is outcome based with a focus on the future life of the student as a functioning member of society.

This goal, however, is frequently thwarted by school districts that, for various reasons, do not always have a child’s education as their primary goal. We warn parents in our articles and lectures that parents and schools have different perspectives.

Most parents are focused on their child’s future (“Will my child be able to go to college?” or “Can my adult child live independently from me?”), while schools are focused on budget costs and the current year’s IEP goals.

Unless parents understand these different perspectives, they can lead to misunderstandings and frustration for the parents and an inappropriate education for the child.

FAPE is More than Academic

The elementary school years are foundational. Students must learn to read before they can read to learn. When the basic skills of education are not learned in a timely matter, a gap grows between students who have these skills and those who don’t. For students who lag behind, there is a social and emotional toll, not just an academic one. Self-esteem can plummet, and depression and anxiety can set in.

IDEA, as clarified by court decisions requires schools to address these social/emotional issues before the school can demonstrate that a student is making effective progress. Many state laws are even more specific in this regard. Massachusetts, for example, requires that a student have “documented growth in the acquisition of knowledge and skills, including social/emotional development…” [603 CMR § 28.02(17)]

An appropriate education means more than simply academic success.

School Tactics to Deny FAPE

Sadly, too many school districts focus on each school year’s budget more than their obligation to provide a free and appropriate public education. The law is clear that teachers and administrators are not supposed to consider cost as a reason for denying a student needed services.

So, instead, schools will rely on diversionary tactics, such as minimizing parent concerns, not including parents in decisions, withholding information, delaying or offering less expensive and inadequate services, such as Response to Intervention, to keep their costs down.

As a last resort, some schools just refuse to provide needed services and essentially dare parents to file complaints or hearings with their state’s department of education, knowing that only a small percentage of parents will actually do so.

These tactics work for schools when parents are unaware of their legal rights. Without this knowledge, they may accept all these tactics without question. When parents are exhausted and struggling for answers, and the school gives them progress reports with statements like the ones we have seen: “It has been a pleasure working with this enthusiastic and engaging youngster,” and “She is a polite and hard-working adolescent,” these positive sounding but ultimately meaningless reassurances are what parents focus on, rather than the reality of their child’s struggle.

When School Tactics Fail, Fight the Parents
For the parents who do know their legal rights, sometimes their only option is to hire a lawyer to force non-compliant school districts to follow the state and federal laws. Then a district might be willing to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight those parents, rather than put the money into providing the services that a child is entitled to.

And the Results…

Time passes. Each school year goes quickly. Suddenly a child is a teenager, facing the prospect of life beyond high school without the supports of special education. Since the school’s obligation to a student ends once that student accepts a high school diploma, some schools hope to finish their obligation as quickly as possible, even if that student is not ready to graduate.

Positive progress reports, inflated grades, minimizing parents’ concerns, delays, offering inadequate or insufficient services, and even intimidation, never consider the law’s requirement of preparing a student with a disability for further education, employment, or independent living.

We experienced these tactics first hand, and have also read hearing decisions in multiple states where schools have tried to force a student to graduate without adequate preparation.

Then What?

Research by the National Center on Educational Outcomes indicates that 80-85 percent of students with disabilities have the cognitive ability to achieve the same state academic standards as their non-disabled peers. Yet, according to the National Longitudinal Transition Study, only 7.6 percent of students with disabilities attend a four-year college compared to almost 30 percent of their non-disabled peers.

Likewise, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that the unemployment rate for young adults with disabilities is twice that of their peers without disabilities.

The Dropout-to-Prison Pipeline… and Worse

In 2016, The Houston Chronicle did a series of articles on special education in Texas by investigative reporter Brian Rosenthal. Officials from the Texas Education Agency, without any data to support their decision, decided to dramatically lower the percentage of students in the state’s special education programs in an apparent attempt to reduce special education costs.

In this series of seven articles, the Chronicle concluded that thousands of vulnerable students with qualifying disabilities were denied special education services.

So what happens to these students? For many, the outcome is tragic. According to the Chronicle, thousands of parents decided to home school or pay for expensive charter schools. Many more students are left to languish in general education classrooms without the proper help. When these students fall behind, depression can set in and behavior problems begin, followed by suspensions or expulsions.

“Some [students] have even entered the criminal justice system or otherwise required intensive adult services that cost far more than special education,” according to the Chronicle.

The personal cost of of living an unfulfilled and unproductive life is dire. As quoted in the Chronicle series, David Arnold of the Child Mind Institute describes the “continued demoralization” that students feel when they are denied an appropriate education, and that leads them to the “dropout-to-prison pipeline.”

A member of the Texas Behavioral Health Advisory Committee acknowledges that “students have killed themselves because nobody was willing to pay attention.”

These problems are real. We have even seen them in affluent communities where young adults experience unemployment, mental illness, and homelessness.

Write Your Congressman!

When Congress first passed the first special education law in 1975, it authorized the Federal Government to pay for 40% of all special education costs. Unfortunately, Congress has never funded more than 20% of those costs and often less. This means that local communities must cover the rest. Property taxes rise and residents react, resulting in a backlash against students with disabilities.

We have read many complaints over the years written by parents who feel that education is some sort of zero-sum game in which students in special education receive privileges that take opportunities away from their children in general education.

This point of view is shortsighted and misguided, however. If special education costs seem high, compare them to the cost of not providing an appropriate education. An adult who is not able to function productively requires disability insurance, food assistance, and Medicaid, among other costs, for the remainder of his or her adult life.

If those who advocate for lower taxes and smaller government won’t acknowledge their moral and ethical obligation to the most vulnerable members of our society, then they should at least consider the monetary cost.

Instead of complaining about the students in special education, all parents should write their legislative leaders to request proper funding for IDEA as Congress originally intended. Society shares a moral and ethical obligation to educate children of all abilities. When schools don’t provide an appropriate education, the outcome can be tragic, and we collectively suffer in the long run.

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