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‘Has special education lost its way?’

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Patrick Gailey

One panel at PILCOP’s Symposium for Equality last week was called “Has special education lost its way?” Martin Elks, chairman of the advisory group charged with monitoring compliance with a settlement agreement requiring Pennsylvania districts to educate all special education students in a “least restrictive environment,” thinks that in this respect the answer is yes.

The agreement was produced after 11 years of litigation in the case of Gaskin v. Pennsylvania. Elks said his panel’s final report found that most provisions to maximize inclusion for students with disabilities are not being met. The state Department of Education by and large did not cooperate with the panel, limiting communication and declining to provide it with crucial data.

Elks’ presentation not only advocated for inclusion of students with disabilities into regular classrooms, he called it a “civil rights issue.” Indeed, provisions of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), one of the principles of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), requires that children with disabilities be considered for placement in regular education classes as a starting point for assessment of the ideal placement for the child. The law also requires that the student ultimately be placed in regular education classes for the largest amount of time deemed “appropriate” by a team aimed at developing the students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP).

The advisory panel’s final report said that while there was an overall improvement in placing students in “least restrictive” settings for at least 80 percent of the day, most of that improvement occurred for students with mild disabilities. For students with some moderate and severe disabilities, including mental retardation and blindness, there was limited or negative change in their exposure to regular classrooms, Elks said.

The actual provision in IDEA says that children with disabilities should be educated with children who are not disabled ”to the maximum extent appropriate,” and there is some disagreement even within the special education community as to what “appropriate” means for different students. IDEA requires districts to provide a “continuum” of options for special education students.

Elks’ 16-member panel, however, charged with being a legal monitor, found that the state PDE’s problems with enforcing the “least restrictive environment” directive are “significant and systemic,” even after a legal battle that lasted more than a decade and nearly five years of implementation. Elks said that the five-year period was cut short by PDE’s Bureau of Special Education and marked by mediation, disagreements, and wrangling that hampered progress

The Gaskin agreement “provided PDE with a powerful tool and many useful tools” to increase students’ access to education in an inclusive environment. “This opportunity was not utilized to its potential," said Elks.

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