For children with disabilities, the question is whether a child will learn, academically, behaviorally, and socially, better in an inclusive environment, i.e., in a classroom with children with and without disabilities, or in a segregated classroom with other similarly disabled students.
That determination should be made with parents and school officials together at the table.
Some view state lawmakers attempt to create Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) as a move toward pushing children with disabilities out of public schools, done in the name of “school choice” and giving parents who are dissatisfied with their child’s public school an option to find a better place for their child to be educated.
The Alabama State Department of Education’s attempt to limit a parent’s right to due process to address problems with schools has also proved worrisome among special education advocates, leaving some to question why both the legislature and the state agency charged with overseeing special education are working to seemingly preventing parents from accessing the public special education services authorized and protected under federal law.
The following was written by Hannah Shapiro, Senior Coordinator for Public Policy at Autism Speaks. Hannah is the older sister of a young man receiving public special education services in Alabama. She is a firm believer that all children can and deserve to learn in inclusive environments.
The case for inclusive education
Less than fifty years ago, the education landscape for students with disabilities was markedly different than it is today. Around that time, only one in five children with disabilities received a public education or learned alongside their peers. Students with disabilities were set on a path of isolation and dependency by being denied access to public education, a fundamental civil right we share as Americans.
After decades of dedicated parents and disability advocates fighting for equal rights to public education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was signed into law in 1975. Today, students with disabilities are entitled to a free, appropriate public education as well as the supports and services needed to make educational progress.
Last year under the IDEA, 6.4 million students throughout the country were able to receive services that enabled them to learn in an inclusive educational setting and be a part of our community.
Over the past year, movements in Alabama aimed at weakening parents’ and their children’s rights to special education through due process as well as incentivizing removal of students with disabilities from public education are alarming. As a native Alabamian and sister of a brother with special needs, it is difficult to watch lawmakers place cost-savings value on our most vulnerable children.
The focus on the cost of educating students who happen to need extra supports to succeed rather than on the quality of education is far from the values Alabamians share.
Fifty years ago, most students with disabilities were cast aside as too expensive to educate.
In 2016, communities must focus resources to improve and expand access to quality education for all students, even when that means serving students who require special education and supports.
The IDEA mandates that the state provide all eligible children with a free education that meets their unique needs, including early intervention services. Although schools are not required to provide the best services, they are required to provide appropriate education and support services that will allow the child to make educational progress.
If the school fails to provide an appropriate education, parents are entitled to reimbursement for private placement through due process.
Public special education focuses on providing a child with an education, regardless of the level of ability or special needs.
Before considering private placement and relinquishing the right to public special education, parents should advocate for the free and appropriate education and services that students with disabilities are entitled to by law and paid for by taxpayer dollars.
The notion that students with disabilities are better served outside of public school could be improved with higher expectations and prioritizing state resources to help all students make educational progress.
Lack of high expectations for students with disabilities continues to be one of the biggest barriers in the case for increase in special education services.
Parents and advocates must signal to schools and lawmakers that children with disabilities can reach their fullest potential with quality special education that is made possible through prioritizing state funding.
About 85 to 90 percent of students with disabilities—including those with autism— can meet the graduation standards targeted for all other students, as long as they receive specially designed instruction and appropriate access, supports, and accommodations.
The school is required to provide these supports and accommodations that a child might need to make educational progress.
As Alabamians, we must uphold our commitment to an inclusive society, where all children, regardless of disability, have an equal opportunity to succeed.
With over 80,000 students being eligible for special education last year in Alabama it is critical that parents, teachers, lawmakers, and students understand the right to special education services provided by public schools.
Parents must continue to be their child’s strongest advocate in order to secure support services and an individualized education.
The first step to being a champion advocate is to know your rights
The IDEA guarantees the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for children with disabilities. This includes students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Understanding what FAPE covers can be helpful to parents when discussing a child’s individualized education with the school.
Schools are required to provide special education and related services to all children who need them. Related services include things like speech therapy, applied behavioral analysis, occupational therapy, positive behavior intervention support, and classroom aides.
These services should be provided at no charge to the parents and spelled out in the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), a written statement of the educational program designed to meet the child’s individual needs.
Every child who receives special education services must have an IEP. Parents must be active participants in developing their child’s IEP as it holds schools accountable for providing the services agreed to in the document.
The IEP has two general purposes—to set reasonable learning goals for a child and to state the services that the school district will provide for the child.
For more information regarding IEPs, download Autism Speaks’ IEP Guide. This guide is meant to provide a summary, information on the process, and practical tips for all students with disabilities.
Under FAPE, schools are required to educate children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment (LRE), meaning in the most integrated setting appropriate. This may mean spending most or all day in a general education classroom.
Schools must provide the supports and accommodations for students to learn alongside their peers as appropriate for the student’s individual need.
Schools may place students in a more restrictive environment only if they cannot be educated appropriately in a regular class with the help of modifications and other services.
As a member of the IEP team, parents must be involved in figuring out which LRE is best for a child to make educational progress.
Many parents believe their child could be better served through a private program to better tailor to their child’s needs. Under the IDEA, a parent can obtain reimbursement for private placement if it is decided that the school system did not provide FAPE to the child in a timely manner prior to enrolling them in the private school.
This is a protected mechanism for parents to retain their rights under the IDEA if they prove the school system has failed to provide their child FAPE.
It is important for parents to understand that removing their child from public education means relinquishing all rights to FAPE.
Private school, programs, and homeschooling does not provide the right to LRE, related services and supports, equal participation in afterschool activities or school sponsored events.
Private schools are not mandated to provide individualized special education at no cost to parent.
Before parents consider removing a child from public education, parents must understand that they are no longer entitled to the legal protections under the IDEA.
If parents feel that their child is not receiving FAPE and the services needed to make educational progress, after trying to resolve these issues with the school, seeking help from a special education attorney might be necessary.
Download this helpful resource guide to stay educated as a parent advocate.
Hannah Shapiro is from Birmingham, Alabama. She is the Senior Coordinator for Public Policy at Autism Speaks, focusing on education and employment policy. Hannah is the older sister of a young man receiving public special education services in Alabama. She is a firm believer that all children can and deserve to learn in inclusive environments.