Americans tend to be a vocal people, sharing their views about almost any issue in the public sphere loudly and frequently. Yet on the question of how to provide special-education services to students who need them—while not compromising the interests of children who don’t—many parents of regular-education students have opted out of any public discourse.
Nationwide, about 60% of students with disabilities spend at least 80% of their instructional time in regular classrooms. Many parents of other children in public schools understand that when teachers focus on students who need more attention, their kids may get shortchanged. Yet most parents opt out of any discussion and don’t complain.
The special-education system in the U.S. is highly regulated by law, expensive, and sometimes marked by litigiousness. Those working to reform the system are almost exclusively people with a direct stake in it—including school representatives, parents of students with disabilities, advocates, lawyers, special educators, academics and government officials. Since members of the general public and parents of regular-education students (who account for 86% of students) rarely weigh in, the interests of regular-education school-age students are not sufficiently explored.
It’s time to think about what we are doing, rather than simply to continue with the current broken system. That’s the only way to help all students succeed.
Before 1975, more than a million students with disabilities were excluded from schools and some 3.5 million did not receive appropriate services. That year, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, now called the Individuals With Disabilities Act of 1990. Students identified as disabled have since been guaranteed access to what the law calls a “free appropriate public education,” and their parents have the right to participate in (and dispute) the school’s development of an annual “individualized education program” for their child. No other group of students or parents enjoys such rights.
Today, six million students with disabilities (about 14% of all students) have the right to a free appropriate public education and an individualized education program. Between 70% and 80% of these students have mild or moderate disabilities, including learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, social and emotional disabilities, and other conditions, such as ADHD. Only 20% to 30% have more severe disabilities, such as cognitive impairments, multihandicapping conditions, deafness or blindness.
Special education is expensive. Estimates of its cost nationwide range between $80 billion and $110 billion per year, and the spending continues to rise faster than regular-education spending. The burden falls mostly on state and local governments. Federal law drives special education, but the federal contribution is less than 20%. The law has spawned an industry of parent attorneys and advocates, school attorneys (of which I am one), experts, mediators, hearing officers, administrative law judges and other dispute-resolution professionals. This is in addition to educators and service providers in schools, and the many federal, state and local officials, evaluators and consultants who manage the system.
By law, students with disabilities have the right to be in the “least restrictive environment” to the maximum extent “appropriate,” with added resources such as computers, large-print or recorded books, and personal aides, if needed. The push to place these students in regular classes is called “inclusion” (or sometimes “mainstreaming”). The federal government has target indicators in state improvement plans, recording how many students with disabilities are in regular classes.
Look into the research on inclusion and you will find that this policy is generally based on notions of civil rights and social justice, not on “best education practices” for all students. The effectiveness of inclusion for students with disabilities varies—some groups and individual students benefit; others don’t. This is one reason why inclusion remains controversial in some segments of the disability community.
Very little work has been done to establish how inclusion affects regular students—whether they are average, English-language learners, advanced, poor or homeless. Studies seem to support the social benefits of mainstreaming for children with disabilities and possibly for regular-education students, but what about the effect on their academic progress?
Teachers may tell you (privately) that inclusion often leads them to slow down and simplify classroom teaching. Yet the system is entrenched and politically correct. Many parents remain silent. Some quietly remove their kids from public schools.
Can this be anything but very bad for America? Our schools thrive only with a diverse student population and engaged parents—not with the departure of those who choose to leave.
None of this is about being anti- or pro-special or regular education. The purpose is to focus on fairness and equity for all students in the nation’s classrooms. That goal can only be achieved by encouraging many more people, especially parents and educators, to come forward with their views and experiences. The time for that robust, inclusive and frank national discussion is now.
Ms. Freedman is a school attorney, of counsel to Stoneman, Chandler & Miller LLP in Boston. She is the author of, among other books, “Fixing Special Education—12 Steps to Transform a Broken System” (Park Place Publishing, 2009).
A version of this article appeared August 5, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: ‘Mainstreaming’ Special-Ed Students Needs Debate.