Fairness For Disabled Kids

Supreme Court Ruling Gives Parents More Options, But Public Schools Won't Be Hurt

July 02, 2009|By Linda J. Jacobs

The Supreme Court recently ruled that a child with special needs does not have to first experience failure in a public school setting before parents can choose private special-education options. Those who are celebrating this decision (parents of children with disabilities) and those who are condemning it (public school administrators) are both overstating its likely consequences.

The concept of providing a "free and appropriate public education" for children with disabilities has inspired controversy and dire warnings for more than three decades. When President Gerald Ford signed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975, even he warned that it would be impossible to fulfill. The subsequent Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) tweaked the original EHA in 1997, but the original promise to educate all children with disabilities at public expense in the least restrictive environment had been essentially realized.

From the beginning, there were disagreements. Parents defined "appropriate" to mean ensuring the child would reach his or her full potential. School systems disagreed, and eventually so did the Supreme Court - declaring that appropriate essentially means simply being promoted from grade to grade.

This most recent decision evolves from a growing concern among parents that they have had little or no recourse when public schools cannot meet their children's educational needs. The requirement for serving a child in the least restrictive environment has come to mean that the child with the disability must be fully included in the general education program.

The law clearly states that: 1) the child with disabilities should be placed in the least restrictive environment that is appropriate to the child's needs; and 2) that a continuum of placements must range from being fully placed in the general education environment to being served in a residential program for moderately to severely disabled youngsters. This requirement is frequently overlooked, with the result that children are forced into classrooms that are neither socially nor academically appropriate.

Almost daily, I meet the parents of children who have been ill served by the insistence on fully including their children in a general education program. Teenagers suffer the greatest social and academic damage. Adolescents have their own hierarchy. What I call the "mascot syndrome" reveals itself in well-intentioned pats and hugs from passing acquaintances for kids who are "different."

Speaking in the hall is one thing, but invitations for trips to the mall or parties are less frequent. "Included" teens are often cut out of the very activities and experiences that instill confidence and joy.

Children whose disabilities cause their achievement to fall below their age mates also experience frustration. For youngsters who need more time and different methodology to learn successfully, general grade-level curriculum with specific pacing guides can also be ineffective. These children can learn, but neither at the same rate nor in the same way as neurologically typical peers who might pick up behavior or knowledge serendipitously just by watching others. Children struggling with learning disabilities may also need specific direct instruction in many areas, and, for many, appropriate social skills must be directly taught. Parents have sought relief in private schools.

Will the recent decision by the Supreme Court automatically put hundreds of students in private schools without ever setting foot in a public school? No. It only gives parents the right to begin a long and arduous due process proceeding to secure that private placement.

Will public schools in Maryland be faced with huge expenses for private placements? Probably not. Parents are victorious in only about 5 percent of due process hearings before a state administrative law judge. Also, the cost to the school system for the private placement is not much more than what the district would spend to provide the service. The school district may already be paying for a one-on-one aide to enable a child to participate in a general education program. When that child moves to a private school, the state shares in the cost of the placement.

The Supreme Court has indeed provided parents with more options, but don't look for a change in the overall landscape. Let us hope, however, that this decision leads to greater public awareness of why kids with learning disabilities need to be truly included and accepted - whether the school they attend is public or private.

Linda J. Jacobs is executive director and founder of The Harbour School, a non-public school in Annapolis and Baltimore for children with learning disabilities. Her e-mail is ljacobs@harborschool.org.

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