IDEA is More Than a Good Idea
Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.- Kofi Annon
Betsy Devos, Secretary of Education, has made it clear that she would prefer to do away with the Department of Education.
I am not a fan of the voucher system for reasons stated in this article; referencing what happened in Chile. Devos is clearly a fan of vouchers, but I still have not heard plans or any discussions as to how this would work for children protected under IDEA .
As on public display during the Senate confirmation hearing, Betsy Devos did not have a clear understanding of IDEA. The acronym stands for; Individuals With Disability Act.
IDEA is a law that was enacted in 1975 to provide children with disabilities the opportunity to receive a free and appropriate public education. Prior to this law America was not educating children with different learning needs adequately. In 1970, American schools only educated an estimated one in five children with disabilities. The states, did not display great decision making as many had their own laws that actually excluded children with differently learning needs. Many states excluded children that were blind, deaf, intellectually disabled or emotionally disturbed. During this time parents did not have a say in how their children with special needs were educated.
If you don’t have children in special education, or do not work in education I realize you may not be aware of IDEA. However, I would expect the Secretary of Education to be fully aware of this law.
As a Speech Language Pathologist, working in the public school system for over 10 years, I know how important IDEA is and how it impacts the children I serve. My experience ranges from preschool programs into adult transition programs (and everything in between).
Sadly, in the recent political discussions, I have not heard any plans for how children with special needs will be serviced if the Department of Education is abolished or if we, as a country adapt the school voucher program.
On the Department of Education’s webpage you can read personal stories to understand what it was like prior to this law. These stories were from a time that some now seem to look back on as “great” and something to achieve to be “great again.” This is a very misguided view of greatness. Here is one personal story from the site:
Sue grew up with her stay-at-home mother and truck driver father in a rural community in Louisiana. Sue was born in the 1950s with no sight, significant cognitive disabilities, and severe behavior disorders. When Public Law 94-142 was passed in 1975, Sue was 20 and attended school for the first time.
Sue’s teacher worked closely with her mother to increase Sue’s independence. Sue learned socially appropriate language to communicate with others. Sue also learned to eat with utensils and walk independently with a cane in school and at home.
So what is Special Education under the law IDEA?
Specialized instruction to meet the individual needs of all children.
How do you receive Special Education services ?
A referral from parent, teacher, or outside provider (i.e physician)
There may be an observation, an assessment plan, or prior to an assessment a Student Success Team (SST) meeting.
A SST consists of administrator, parent, teacher, special education professions to discuss strategies to assist the classroom teacher in helping the child succeed. This team will meet again to determine progress and if an assessment is necessary.
The assessment team may include any of the following professionals based on need:
Speech Language Pathologist
Specialized Academic Instructor
Adaptive Physical Education Teacher
Once the assessment is completed, the team will meet with parents to review results. If the child meets eligibility criteria, the team will move ahead with a document called an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
IEP consists of:
Present Level of student’s abilities
Goals in areas of weakness
Accommodations (i.e. student may have extra time on tests)
Services are based on what is the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for that student. The LRE is the necessary amount of time needed with specialized academic support to meet the goals.
Once the IEP is signed the services begin. If a student moves to another state, that state is required to provide the same level of service per the IEP document.
In a K-6 public school with a special day class on campus this is an example of what my services as a SLP may look like: (names and situations do not reflect actual students)
Amy- 1st grade student with high functioning Autism. Amy receives speech therapy one time a week for a social skills group. The social skills group is co-taught with the School Psychologist. Amy also receives Specialized Academic consult support for the general education teacher to support Amy in class.
Charlie- is a 3rd grader that presents with severe Autism. Charlie receives one therapy session in class for natural communication opportunities and one therapy session in a designated space to meet his communication goals. The SLP has support from an on site Behavioral Therapist, Occupational Therapist, and Specialized Academic Teacher. Per Charlie’s IEP he has an IPAD programmed to assist his ability to communicate his wants, need, and thoughts.
Katy- is a 6th grade student that receives speech support for fluency- meaning she requires assistance with use of learned strategies for stuttering. Therapy focuses on helping Katy practice strategies for in class presentations. Katy also attends a small group math instruction with a Specialized Academic teacher.
As you can see there is any number of service combinations that a student may have.
Now a brief personal account of private schools. There are some amazing private schools and some poor private schools. What I have found from personal experience in observing children in these schools, is most do not have staff trained to work with children with learning differences. So if your child has any difficulties it may not be identified as quickly within a private school. If it is identified the services will not be at school as they do not have the benefit of having a team on site.
While well intentioned, private schools sometimes accept children that they simply do not have the training or staff to support. I’ve observed children with Autism in “good” private schools left to stem (fixate on objects they prefer) without any interventions in place. The private school is getting a paycheck, the parent receives positive reports that the child is doing “well” as they are not being disruptive, meanwhile the child is receiving very little support.
I have also seen children with behavior needs get “kicked out” of private schools as the staff was not equipped with tools to manage behavior in the classroom. They lacked the expertise of a School Psychologist or Behavioral Specialist to help support them.
So no matter how well intentioned, these arrangements can fall apart. The private school’s often come to a place where they realize they aren't qualified to support the children's needs. It may even create a financial issue for the school with complaints from parents paying high prices with an expectation there isn’t a “disruptive” student at the school.
Now a brief look at Charter Schools. Again just like all schools, there are some good ones and some poor ones. Something to remember is while they claim to work with special education children some do not take children with IEPs (although they are mandated to under IDEA) or children that have missed too many days of school. I’ve seen charter schools with a lottery system that somehow miss children with special needs. This means some are in a sense choosing “easier” children to work with skewing their results of success. While percentages vary state to state on average they serve less special needs children than public schools.
So back to the idea that parents will receive taxpayer money for choice of school for an amount allotted for their child and it will be great!
Well, my question is great for who?
Betsy DeVos has shown no plan for how services would be allocated for children with special needs.
My primary concern is for the children but I also have concerns as to what this would look like for my job.
Under the current system, I have one school with a caseload of about 40 children, and a team of staff to support me and the students I serve. With the changes proposed I question how this will be done.
Let's say one private school or charter school has the ability to refuse to take any children with IEPs (or somehow avoids it), one school has ten children with various needs (speech, academic, behavior), and one school has three children with severe Autism...
Where would the support come from?
Would the SLP drive to ten different schools to provide services?
Would there be a team of professionals at each school?
How would children be identified for a need of service without professionals on sight?
If they show the need for multiple services where would they receive these services?
How much money would be given per child if needs are unknown at the time?
Would schools be required to take a certain number of children with IEPs?
If so at what level of services would be designated for which schools (special day class, learning center support) ?
If it’s up to the states what will happen if a student with an IEP moves to another state?
Would public schools be left with all the “difficult” children and minimum resources while private schools get to cherry pick their students and make money?
Would the gap between the voucher amount and cost of services increase by those wanting to pay top dollar for the “best” , making it increasingly difficult for children of low income families to afford and receive services?
Would we go back to when America was “great” and children with different learning needs were left at home or in the corners of schools?
I would like answers to these questions. I would like to know that these issues are raised with Betsy Devos and that public school educators are part of the conversation.
Do we need changes in our public school system? Yes, any educator will tell you that.
Do we need changes in our special education system? Yes, any special education educator will tell you that.
The change needs to come from those with experience and who understand public education.
Public schools are meant to be the great equalizer in our society. In America, every child no matter their socioeconomic status, race, religion, homelife, or learning style, should be able to obtain a free and appropriate education that will set them up for success.
What Betsy Devos and many Republicans are proposing is to go backwards, to neglect children with different learning needs, and to widen the gap between the haves and the have nots.
Please don't allow this to happen. Stand up for kids from all backgrounds and learning abilities. As Senator Kaine stated, “All schools receiving Federal funding should be required to meet the guidelines under IDEA.” Now exactly how this will be done with a Secretary of Education with no experience or understanding of special education and with the desire to do away with the Department of Education remains to be seen or even discussed.
IDEA is much more than just a good idea. It has served children that historically were denied their right to an education. Please keep them part of the discussion.
A very concerned Speech Language Pathologist