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For students with disabilities, some steps forward, resources still inadequate

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

A “bastion of apartheid.” That’s how one Philadelphia parent described special education in the Notebook’s first Eye on Special Education column published in 1994, nearly 20 years after passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

This parent’s son, who had Down syndrome, was being kept in segregated (disability-only) classes. His IEP (Individualized Education Program) was so generic that it was really an “EEP,” an “Everyone Education Plan.” She was constantly being told what he couldn’t achieve.

Twenty years down the road, have things improved? Yes and no.

Legal rights are now clearer. For example, although it took almost two decades to get a definitive ruling (in the 1993 Oberti case) that Congress really “meant it” about inclusion, there’s no doubt about that now. The “state of the art” has evolved, and we’ve seen children achieve at levels unanticipated a few decades ago – accessing college campuses and integrated employment opportunities.

At the same time, enforcement of IDEA rights remains problematic. But the biggest problem is that IDEA assumes an adequately resourced education system. Quality “special” services cannot be delivered by schools that are starved for personnel, facilities and equipment; inclusion doesn’t work in overcrowded classes without supports. When the bottom falls out of the system, the IDEA can’t function as Congress intended.

So what are our hopes for the next 20 years?

We hope for inclusive educational opportunities for all children with disabilities. We hope students will gain skills – including communication and technology skills – leading to real jobs and independent living, especially since people with disabilities still have an excessive unemployment rate. We hope schools will routinely involve parents, while not relegating to parents tasks that only trained professionals can do.

The District’s recently revised Special Education Plan proposes to more fully involve parents, help teachers with inclusion, and emphasize behavioral skills. These are laudable goals. But the plan should address in detail how children with disabilities will be included throughout the District’s programs, services, and budgets.

One key area not adequately addressed is technology. Children with disabilities are living in a technologically advanced world and must learn necessary skills. The District must also provide better Extended School Year programs. Relegating many students with disabilities to minimal summer services is not the individualized approach required by law.

More attention must also be paid to charters. Some have made large strides in serving children with disabilities; others have not. Some charters enroll relatively low numbers of children with disabilities (or with complex disabilities), and some actually discourage enrollment. We hope that all charters will become welcoming to, and skilled at educating, children with disabilities.

Finally, we hope for adequate resources – starting this September – for all Philadelphia public school students. Too often, our political leaders assume that because the IDEA is in place, children with disabilities are receiving needed services. That assumption is wrong.

Children with disabilities will not achieve without reasonably sized classes, adequate facilities, appropriate materials, and staff who have continuous training and support. The state and city must put those essential conditions into place now so that future reports in this column can focus on accomplishments, not deficits.

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