Parents around the country are angry, claiming that their children who have learning disabilities, namely dyslexia, are not being served in public schools. The question here is why aren’t public schools serving students with learning disabilities? Isn’t it the law?
Many parents expect inclusion in general education classes, although some argue for vouchers. Vouchers mean a child will likely go to a private or charter school that often does not involve inclusion and could include teachers with little preparation to teach students with learning disabilities.
But inclusion in public schools has not been without problems. It has not always meant that teachers will have preparation in learning disabilities, or that they will have support to teach students with learning disabilities in large diverse classes.
How did this come about?
Learning Disabilities and Dyslexia
Reports state that 1 in 5 children in the U.S. have learning disabilities like dyslexia or ADHD. Schools do not cause learning disabilities, but schools can go a long way to improve a student’s ability to learn.
In recent years, schools have relied on Response to Intervention, assessing students and placing them in Tiers to obtain what’s considered the best instruction. Some see this to deny students the special assistance they need. Others argue that RTI has never been fully funded.
Students have also been pushed to achieve unproven Common Core State Standards. Many of these standards, especially for young children, are developmentally inappropriate and could lead to reading difficulties.
Public Education’s Troubled Promise
In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, or Public Law 94-142, was signed into law. President Ford shared concerns about funding special education. Most agree today, that special education hasn’t been well-funded. Here is some of President Ford’s statement.
Unfortunately, this bill promises more than the Federal Government can deliver, and its good intentions could be thwarted by the many unwise provisions it contains. Everyone can agree with the objective stated in the title of this bill — educating all handicapped children in our Nation. The key question is whether the bill will really accomplish that objective.
Even the strongest supporters of this measure know as well as I that they are falsely raising the expectations of the groups affected by claiming authorization levels which are excessive and unrealistic.
Special Education After PL 94-142
Despite President Ford’s concerns, school districts at that time created support services for students with disabilities. Students were offered a continuum of services.
When general education teachers became aware of students with reading difficulties, they referred students for special assessment to determine if learning disabilities were present. If a student was identified as having disabilities, they were placed in Resource Classes where they received one to two hours a day of remedial assistance. These classes were small and reading remediation involved individualization.
Teachers working with students who had learning disabilities had to have formal university preparation. School administrators strictly enforced this requirement. Most school districts also provided teachers with professional development in the latest reading programs for children with reading disabilities.
But policymakers and corporate reformers wanted to privatize public schools. They were not keen on funding such programs.
IDEA’s Broken Promise
In 1997, the Individual with Disabilities Education Act changed the original law, PL 94-142, to focus on inclusion. Parents were led to believe that individualized attention to their student’s disabilities was substandard, that students should always be in inclusion classes.
How did this happen?
In 1986, Madeleine Will, once married to conservative columnist George Will, became a leader in the Full Inclusion movement. As a parent of a child with Down syndrome, Will held a prominent, highly influential position in the Reagan administration. She wrote at that time, an article in Exceptional Children “Educating Children with Learning Problems: A Shared Responsibility.”
Although well-intentioned, this so-called “pull-out” approach to the educational difficulties of students with learning problems has failed in many instances to meet the educational needs of these students and has created, however unwittingly, barriers to their successful education.
Not everyone agreed. University of Virginia education professor James Kauffman argued that the REI advocates used charged metaphorical language “rights without labels” and “excellence for all,” and even incorporated “racial integration” to claim that inclusion was best.
The late Bernard Rimland a psychologist and founder of the Autism Research Institute wrote in 1995 about his son who had autism.
He has come along much farther than we ever dared hope, and we are quite confident it is because he was always in special classes, taught by experienced, skilled, caring teachers, exhibiting monumental patience, who had gone to great lengths to train themselves in methods that would help Mark and children like him achieve their full potential.
I have no quarrel with inclusionists if they are content to insist upon inclusion for their children, or for children of other parents who feel that it is optimum for their children. But when they try to force me and other unwilling parents to dance to their tune, I find it highly objectionable and quite intolerable.
But Will and other parents and educators were on board for inclusion, and school privatization.
In 2001, she wrote the preface to Rethinking Special Education for a New Century. It was edited by three proponents of school privatization, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Andrew J. Rotherham, and Charles R. Hokanson, Jr. The document was funded by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. It pushed for funding cuts to special education and included support for vouchers.
IDEA 2004 and The Parental Dilemma
Since the last reauthorization which took place in 2004, we’ve seen changes in public schools, and school districts. Many parents recognize that students in general classes don’t get the support they need. IDEA doesn’t seem to have the teeth PL 94-142 once had to get students assistance.
General education teachers get broad preparation in special education in their universities and are expected to teach students with a wide range of differences, often in large classes.
Some parents reject special assistance and demand that all students get the same remedial reading program. They may turn to unproven digital instruction.
Teachers with huge class sizes might resort to a standardized reading approach, which is unfair to students who have different reading needs.
Other parents argue for vouchers to private and charter schools, what the privatizers want parents to do, and even though inclusion is often missing from these schools.
Some parents praise the benefits of a voucher or charter school, even though there’s no proof such a school is academically meeting the student’s needs. They believe their child is, if nothing else, finally getting the individual attention they need and deserve, exactly what was stolen from them through the IDEA reauthorizations in the public school setting.
James M. Kauffman,1989. “The Regular Education Initiative as Reagan-Bush Education Policy: A Trickle-Down Theory of Education of the Hard-to-Teach.” The Journal of Special Education. 23: 256–78.
Bernard Rimland, “Inclusive Education” Right For Some: In The Illusion of Full Inclusion: A Comprehensive Critique of a Current Special Education Bandwagon, ed. James M. Kauffman and Daniel P. Hallahan. (Texas: Pro-Ed., 1995), 289-91.
Nancy Bailey, Misguided Education Reform: Debating the Impact on Students. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield) 79-83.
***In Misguided Education Reform: Debating the Impact on Students, Chapter 4 is “Special Education: Abandoned Commitment.” I outline history surrounding PL 94-142 and how reformers have continually chipped away at this law.