Designed With The Best of Intentions: The Fault Line in Support For Special Education
Over the past 35 years, the United States has attempted to close a callous gap in its education system by requiring public schools to teach children with special needs, just as they must teach all other students. Current special education policies are widely viewed as a major step forward in closing that gap.
Still, there is a worrisome fault line in the perspectives of the two groups most closely associated with special education: the public school superintendents and principals who administer it, and the parents of special needs children who rely on it.
The frustration with special education among school leaders is palpable. Public Agenda’s surveys show that 8 in 10 superintendents and principals believe the “volume and complexity” of special education law has gotten worse, 8 in 10 superintendents believe special education absorbs a disproportionate amount of resources, and nearly 9 in 10 say the law encourages a “sense of entitlement” among parents, making them quick to threaten to sue.
Not surprisingly, parents have a different perspective: that of individuals who are deeply worried about their child’s future. Thankfully, most parents give the special education provided by public schools quite good reviews once their child has been evaluated and placed. More than 8 in 10 say their child’s special education teachers really care about their child “as a person,” and 7 in 10 say the teachers know a lot about their child’s disability and how to work with it. Two-thirds give their school good or excellent marks for giving their child the help he or she needs. Unfortunately, many parents also feel that getting their children into the right programs can be a battle. Over half say parents need to find out what help is available on their own: “The school is not going to volunteer the information.” And 7 in 10 believe “too many special needs children lose out” because their parents don’t know what they are entitled to. One mother reported what seemed to be a fairly typical exchange with a school psychologist. “You know what he told me? He said, ‘If you weren’t so persistent, I wouldn’t give you these services.’ ”
Right now, the two groups seem enveloped in a cloud of suspicion: School leaders are on guard fearing unreasonable demands and lawsuits. Parents are primed for battle, fearing schools won’t help their child unless forced to. There’s no question that we expect school officials to follow the law, however their criticism of special education as it currently operates is so intense and broad that it probably warrants more serious attention than it now gets. The question is whether there are reforms that could address educators’ frustrations while easing parents’ anxieties about obtaining the services their children deserve. #
Jean Johnson is an executive vice president at Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and citizen engagement organization.