What’s Ahead for Special Education?

What’s Ahead for Special Education?

 Federal policy has transformed the education of students with disabilities in the United States. Prior to the 1970s, exclusion was largely the rule for millions, who were placed in separate schools from their peers and often inappropriately educated because of their physical and behavioral disabilities. But in 1975, the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (originally the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act) began the process of ensuring that these children be integrated with their peers whenever possible, and evaluated, accommodated, and supported to fulfill their potential.

The Obama administration expanded federal protection of students with disabilities, but as the Department of Education reviews all policy guidance in the wake of President Trump’s executive order on regulatory reform, there’s a concern in the special education community that policies may shift. We spoke with Laura Schifter, an expert on special education policy and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, about what districts can expect, and how schools can continue to support their most vulnerable students.

How is federal policy shifting for students with disabilities?

The Obama administration put forth several guidance documents that changed the way the federal government protected students with disabilities. Now, the Trump administration could potentially rescind that guidance or take away those regulations — similar to the way it took away Obama’s guidance on protecting transgender students. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but from my perspective, the hope is that the regulations and guidance stay in place.

What polices, specifically, could be rolled back?

The Obama administration released a regulations package in December 2016 that they called Equity in IDEA. The regulations were meant to get more states to address the fact that there are disproportionately high numbers of students of color identified for special education, placed in segregated placements, and disciplined at high rates. In part, the regulations ensure states have a consistent way to measure significant disproportionality, and the regulations provide additional flexibility for districts in spending IDEA money on interventions.

If these guidelines were rescinded, would teachers perhaps have more flexibility in how they help students?

These guidelines are based on good practice. I think most teachers want these additional tools. They want to ensure that behavior goes smoothly in their classroom, and ensure that kids are reaching high expectations.

The Obama administration also worked to disseminate tools, research, and strategies about implementing these guidelines, and I don’t know why we would take a step back from that. They started an initiative called Rethinking Discipline to help districts reform their discipline policies. They had webinars disseminating that information to school leaders