A 1975 law that ensures all students with special needs will be educated at public schools is up for renewal and an uncertain revision by Congress.
In other words, it's time for the nation to rethink how 6.5 million mentally and physically disadvantaged children can reach their potential. A special presidential commission will release its proposals later this year.
Over the past 26 years, the law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has become a worthwhile but costly fixture in almost every public school. It has helped millions of Americans become functioning adults, and kept many from a life of isolation and ignorance.
It's also a source of enough wrangling, finger-pointing, and legal intimidation to ensure a lively debate over the next year. (See story, page 11.)
On one side are numerous educators who say IDEA is too rule-laden, is open to lawsuits, and diverts too many resources to generating paper and meetings, not education. They are joined by many communities that have yet to accept the full cost of this national priority. On the other side are parents of children who must still fight for attention, dollars, and enforcement of federal rules.
In the middle are common citizens who can help Congress and their schools decide again on the extent of compassion and optimal funding.
The 1975 law was born out of the civil rights movement. Its primary goal was just to get special-ed kids into some sort of classroom. But now that right of access is less an issue than the quality of the education.
Creating learning environments with appropriate supports and adaptations for students with special needs has proven doable, and effective. But many, if not most, schools fail to achieve that. Adapting curriculum, especially in the older grades, has been minimal. Assessment and testing has been difficult. A one-size-fits-all approach hasn't worked. Staffing, training, and lack of money have been blamed.
One big obstacle is recruiting and training special-ed teachers who are willing to run the gantlet of paperwork, bureaucracy, and acute parental watchfulness. Given the problems of keeping even regular teachers, Congress must focus on incentives for special-ed teaching.
IDEA also remains an underfunded federal mandate. Congress ordered schools to act, and agreed to pay 40 percent of the cost, but it never provided more than an average 15 percent. The proposed Bush budget offers just 18 percent.
In revising the law, Congress must meet its promise, while also ensuring such money is well spent. Are schools putting money into hiring enough qualified teachers and classroom aides who do more than just babysit for these children?
Another debate is whether the education of special-ed kids is hampered or helped by putting them in regular classes. The trade-off isn't easy. To include them is typically helpful for them. But does it hurt other students?
Too often children who could easily be fully included in classes have been left isolated in self-contained classrooms that function as special-ed schools within schools. They have little or no contact with typical peers. Such programs just meet the letter, not the spirit, of IDEA. That's a loophole schools must close.
Educators need to appreciate the benefits of mixing children with differing abilities and needs. That shift in attitude can take years. But without it, no amount of money or new programs will have a significant effect.
Schools are an expression of a community, and communities find strength by mixing abilities and preventing isolation. Studies have proven that physically or mentally challenged students progress faster when they are included in at least some classes with non-disabled peers.
When a special-ed student has the needed supports in a regular classroom, fears some parents have about their own child's education being compromised can be allayed. Special- needs kids who attend regular schools are better known in their communities and can help other students smooth rough edges, find compassion, responsibility, and a stronger sense of friendship. Stigmas disappear and prejudice drops, as kids, together, work to overcome challenges.
Then everybody's on a better learning track.