Special Education

As Congress takes up reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a key questions is whether it will fulfill its pledge to sufficiently fund special education services.

By Priscilla Pardini

Following is Part 1 of a 2-part series on special education, outlining the major issues as Congress takes up debate of the IDEA. Part 2, focusing on issues of race and special education, will be in the Summer issue.

Ask special education teachers about the upcoming reauthorization of the federal law governing special education – known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – and more often than not their eyes glaze over.

No wonder. From their perspective, IDEA is already laden with complex regulations and innumerable procedural requirements shaped largely by policymakers with little understanding of classroom realities. Teachers often wonder whether another revision of the law is likely to have much bearing on their day-to-day teaching of the roughly 6 million students classified as needing special education services.

Nonetheless, the federal reauthorization of IDEA is shaping up as the educational battle of the year. The major issue: whether Congress will fulfill its 27-year-old pledge to fund 40 percent of the additional costs of educating students with special needs in the United States, or whether the undeniable problems in special education will be used as a rationale to dismantle the programs and promises of IDEA.

David Egnor, senior director of public policy for the Council for Exceptional Children, said that without adequate funding, Congress can’t ever expect to get true compliance with the law, no matter what it requires. “You get what I call symbols and ceremonies of compliance: more paperwork and meetings. You know you’re not serving kids as well as you should be, so you spend all your time doing paperwork to cover yourself in case you get sued.” (The council is the nation’s largest professional organization committed to improving educational outcomes for individuals with disabilities.)

Despite its promises, the federal government has never paid more than 15 percent of the costs for special education services; the push for the promised 40 percent federal funding is, in shorthand, referred to as “full funding of IDEA.”

In addition to funding, legislators are expected to take up other matters, including special education eligibility requirements and identification procedures and student achievement levels and assessment. They will debate disciplinary measures as they pertain to students with special needs, and be asked to address the shortage of qualified special education teachers.

Yet, despite its scope, the reauthorization of IDEA is one of the last things on the mind of Mary Anderson, a teacher of children with autism and special needs at Milwaukee’s Audubon Middle School. “By the time all the changes get to us, they don’t make much difference, at least not in the way we teach from day to day,” she notes.

Egnor understands Anderson’s reaction. “To somehow fool ourselves into thinking that because we change a word here or there something significant will happen for a child is probably unrealistic,” he notes.

Indeed, there is widespread recognition that, to be meaningful, special education policies must respond to classroom conditions that limit teachers’ effectiveness – in particular problems such as inadequate training, unmanageable caseloads, and too much paperwork.


There is little doubt that the nation’s special education system is the most heavily regulated and under-funded of all federal education mandates. It is also one of the most controversial. For example, a disproportionate number of minority children are in special education programs, particularly African-American children, who make up 14.8 percent of the population, but 20.2 percent of all special education students. Also alarming: special education students’ poor outcomes, particularly in terms of academic progress and graduation rates that average about 25 percent.

Meanwhile, the battle lines are being drawn in Washington over reauthorization of IDEA, passed in 1975 to ensure a “free appropriate public education” for students with disabilities. The last reauthorization was in 1997.

The two main sides in the Congressional debate:

  • Those urging the federal government to provide the 40 percent funding of special education as originally promised, which according to the Council for Exceptional Children, would come to an estimated $18 billion for the 2002-03 school year. (Currently, the federal government is spending $6 billion on the program.) Those in this camp also are calling on federal officials to refrain from making substantive changes in the law, noting that school officials and classroom teachers have not yet fully implemented the changes mandated by the 1997 reauthorization. This group includes major education associations such as the National Education Association and the American Association of School Administrators; special education advocacy groups such as the Council for Exceptional Children; and special education teachers and academics. Congressional supporters include most Democrats and a few Republicans. 
  • Those critical of the special education system, including members of the Bush administration, most Republicans in Congress, and conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the Institute for Justice that have long criticized federal education programs say that although the law has given students with disabilities access to public school classrooms, there is little evidence that the billions of dollars in federal money already allocated to special education every year is being well spent. In fact, the most vocal critics have declared the special education system “broken,” and contend it is time to overhaul IDEA. Their agenda includes limiting current eligibility requirements and disciplinary protections already in the law, and instituting new standards they say will increase schools’ accountability for student progress.


Special education advocacy groups are quick to cite IDEA’s accomplishments. “By any standard, it represents an important and necessary component of the education system in this country,” said the Council for Exceptional Children in a position paper on IDEA reauthorization. “It is fundamental to the success of children and youth with disabilities.”

Barbara Day, the mother of two children with learning disabilities, described IDEA as “awesome” during her testimony last fall at one of seven public hearings sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation to gather comments on the upcoming reauthorization. Said Day, “IDEA is a great law, long fought-for by many, a hammered-out dream that promised not privileges, not ways to [get] around educating students… but instead… freedom for all students to obtain what lies between man merely just existing, and a man fulfilling his dreams.”

These and other advocates, however, say that without full funding IDEA can never accomplish its mission. According to the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, a group of national organizations committed to promoting the full participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of society, “Significant increases are critical to ensure high quality services are provided to all students with disabilities.”

The lead authors of Rethinking Special Education for a New Century, published in 2001 by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Progressive Policy Institute, conservative think tanks based in Washington, D.C., have emerged as the most vocal critics of IDEA. They contend that special education has failed to evolve beyond an “access-and-services program envelop- ed by a civil rights orientation … that still has more to do with combating discrimination than teaching children what they need to learn.” In the words of Chester E. Finn, Jr., Andrew J. Rotherham, and Charles R. Hokanson, Jr., “Special education is broken for too many children. Think of it as a ‘program at risk.'”

Finn, Rotherham and Hokanson are also leading the charge against full funding, advocating instead for a funding mechanism that is at least partly “census-based.” Under such a system, which would generally apply to students with less serious handicapping conditions such as learning disabilities, states, and school districts would get a certain amount of money for each pupil receiving special education services, with a cap on the number of pupils eligible for services. They say the approach, which would in effect make special education less of an entitlement program, “create(s) strong financial incentives” for a school district to prevent or remediate children’s learning problems rather than simply refer them to special education.

Lynda Van Kuren, a spokesperson for the Council for Exceptional Children, said that while the Fordham report “brought out some important factors,” she did not believe special education was failing. In the past 10 years, according to Van Kuren, the number of students with disabilities graduating from high school has increased 31 percent, and the number going on to college has doubled. “This is not a system that is broken,” she said.

Other powerful critics of special education include Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige, whose testimony last fall before the House Education and the Workforce Committee left little doubt about the position the Bush administration would take on IDEA. “The IDEA has yet to fulfill its promise,” said Paige. “The doors are open, but the system still denies too many students the opportunity to reach high academic standards.”

Meanwhile, President Bush himself has called for “the same spirit of reform and accountability we have brought to other education programs,” rhetoric special education advocates take to mean “more standardized testing.”

Expected to weigh in on the same side are the members of the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education. The 21-member panel has been charged with reporting on the extent to which current federal and state requirements help or hinder the effectiveness of special education programs. Later this spring, it will issue its own recommendations on how to improve special education.

To be sure, commission members are expected to take into account testimony given by scores of parents, teachers, school administrators, and other special education advocates who spoke out at the Department of Education hearings. But the fact that two contributors to Rethinking Special Education serve on the commission – Bryan C. Hassell as a regular member and G. Reid Lyon as an ex-officio member – is causing concern among special education advocacy groups.


Many members of Congress are surprisingly up to speed on the issue. That’s because in the process of reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) late last year, they took up amendments on two special education issues: full funding of special education programs and disciplinary measures as they apply to special education students. Both the funding amendment, which would have increased federal spending for special education from $6.3 billion to $21 billion over six years, and the discipline amendment, which would have curtailed services to special education students expelled from school, narrowly failed to become law.

But those issues will be taken up again, said Jane West, co-chair of the education task force of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. “There are members of Congress who have already learned about and taken positions on these two issues, and who are already invested in this process.”

The bipartisan amendment on full funding, which was attached to the ESEA bill in the Senate, was sponsored by Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and then-Republican Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont. The amendment was defeated by House Republicans (and later by a conference committee made up of Senate and House members) who argued that the matter should be taken up as part of this year’s reauthorization of IDEA. (Jeffords later left the Republican Party and declared himself a political Independent, saying the move was prompted in part by Republicans’ refusal to substantially increase special education funding. Jeffords’ defection shifted control of the Senate to the Democrats.)

Under reauthorization, which is required every four or five years, Congress must approve the continued expenditure of federal funds for certain activities outlined in the law. The bill will come before the Senate Committee on Health, Education and Labor and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

How big a deal is reauthorization? So big it could get postponed until after November’s congressional election, said Thomas Skrtic, a professor who chairs the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Noting that legislators already delayed action on full funding and discipline once, Skrtic believes legislators won’t want to deal with those issues while on the campaign trail. “That’s how controversial this is likely to be,” he said.

West agrees reauthorization could have major ramifications. “The truth is, there are some problems with special education, and we need to do better,” she said. “We need to get it right.”

Egnor, of the Council for Exceptional Children, admits to being “alarmed” about the outcome of the reauthorization. Said Egnor, “The [Bush] administration is calling for sweeping changes … for dramatic reform. We don’t know what that means in terms of policies. In fact, we don’t sense that they have a vision at all when it comes to special education. We sense attack.”

Egnor’s concerns stem in part from the fact that the administration’s critique of special education “hasn’t included people who have dedicated their lives to it.” Said Egnor, “We seem to disagree on the causes of the problems, and from that flows different solutions.” For example, he said the fact that some students are inappropriately being referred to special education shouldn’t be seen as an indictment of the special education system. “It might mean that regular ed needs more resources.”


Meanwhile, in special education classrooms, the debate around reauthorization is virtually nonexistent. Johnson Hunter, one of three special education math teachers at Milwaukee’s South Division High School, is simply too busy to take the time to ponder the intricacies of IDEA. He sees up to 85 special education students a day in his basic and vocational math and vocational education classes. The students, who display a mix of mild retardation, learning disabilities and emotional/be-havior problems, function at anywhere from a mid-fourth to eighth grade level.

Under IDEA, Hunter must tailor his lessons, teaching methods, and materials to each student’s needs, which are spelled out in Individualized Education Programs (IEP). A total of 24 of those students make up Hunter’s official caseload. That means he is responsible for writing and updating their IEPs and monitoring their progress in all their classes.

Other duties that routinely fall to special education teachers such as Hunter include: completing the forms necessary to document students’ disabilities for the State of Wisconsin, adapting state and local standardized testing programs so special education students can participate, and preparing a Functional Behavior Assessment and Behavior Intervention Plan for any student with severe behavior problems. Special education teachers are also responsible for consulting with parents on school placement, and determining which students require summer school and which program they should attend. Once students turn 14, their teachers must also begin planning how to help them with the often-difficult transition from high school to the world of work or continuing education.

Then, there is the day-to-day teaching, which for special education teachers can be particularly challenging. Take Anderson’s situation. She is responsible for 10 students with severe autism who function with abilities that range from those of an 18-month-old child to a second grader. Technically sixth, seventh and eighth graders, these students need a high level of special education services. They are students who 25 years ago would not have had access to a public school.

Teaching such children is labor intensive, slow going, repetitive and frequently interrupted by outbursts of uncontrollable and inappropriate words and behavior. Gains are minimal. Even the smallest achievement – one 11-year-old’s growing ability to trace his name, address and phone number, for example – is considered an accomplishment.

Beyond that, Anderson must also perform a considerable amount of custodial care. In her case, that means everything from shepherding teenagers taller than she is around the building while stopping to tie and retie shoelaces to feeding her most severely impaired students cheeseburgers for lunch.

Anderson’s energy and humor – and the presence of a full-time children’s assistant – help her pull all this off with an easy, uncommon grace. How does she do it?

“It’s the kids,” she said. “In their own way, they’re great. They’re so unconditional – never resentful, never holding grudges.” Then, too, there’s the satisfaction she gets from gauging their progress. “I do see change – not every day, but over time.”

But even if Anderson’s class exemplifies special education at its most effective, there are days, she admits, that are frustrating and exhausting. “I challenge one of those lawmakers to spend a week in my classroom,” she said.


Hunter, who has been teaching special education since 1968, admits to being “overwhelmed every day” by the daunting crush of all he has to do. “I can’t keep up the way I want to,” he said.

Hunter’s priorities? “Well, you have to do the paperwork – the IEPs, the behavior plans, the assessments,” he said. “The state comes in to make sure you’re in compliance.” As a result, “I don’t have time to plan, to grade papers, to spend as much time as I’d like with the kids.”

He’s not alone. The Council for Exceptional Children reports that nationwide, 68 percent of special education teachers spend fewer than two hours per week in individual instruction with each of their students. Most say they spend a day or more a week on paperwork and 83 percent report spending one-half to one and-a-half days per week in IEP-related meetings.

On the other hand, Hunter knows that he has IDEA to thank for raising awareness of the needs of students with disabilities, improving special education teaching techniques, and requiring that every student in special education be taught in the least restrictive environment possible. “More teachers are taking classes in special ed, and the parents are very well-versed in their rights,” he said. “The law has forced all that.” Still, there are days when the bureaucratic tape makes Hunter wonder “if we haven’t gone too far.”


As special education took hold, so did the mystique surrounding the way children with disabilities were educated. Part of that mystique, particularly in the early years, said Skrtic of the University of Kansas, evolved from the “out of sight, out of mind,” mentality prevalent at the time. “Special ed was sort of tacked on to regular ed, and was seen as a place to deal with all this stuff no one wanted to know too much about,” said Skrtic. “The attitude was, ‘As long as it isn’t in my room, I can go about my business as usual.'”

West, with the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, agrees. “That’s still the biggest misconception about special education,” she said. “That special education is a place – a room, a school – rather than a set of services.”

Skrtic believes that is changing, as more and more school districts have been forced by IDEA to offer special education services in the “least restrictive environment.” The extent to which students in special education interact with their regular peers varies, depending on the severity of their disabilities. For some, it may mean merely eating lunch in the cafeteria; for others, attending regular classes, at times accompanied by their special education teachers who intervene as needed to reinforce the concepts and skills taught by the regular classroom teachers and adapt classroom work to their students’ ability levels.

“Whether they like it or not, a lot more people are involved with special education than ever before because of this kind of inclusion,” said Skrtic, who estimates that about two-thirds of all students in special education are eligible to spend at least part of the school day in regular classes.

They include students such as those in Rick Drida’s class at Audubon. Now in his 18th year of teaching special education, Drida’s job is much like Anderson’s, except that his students are functioning at a higher level – anywhere from a first to sixth grade level. They get math and reading instruction in Drida’s class but take other courses, including art, music, and science, with their peers in regular classes. To be sure, they have support. In science, for example, Deb Hermann, Drida’s handicapped children’s assistant, is on hand to explain something the regular science teacher has said, help the students conduct experiments, and intervene when a student’s behavior threatens to impede his own learning or disrupt others.

Drida said the inclusion program not only exposes his students to more challenging academic work, but also helps improve their communication and social skills. “With autistic kids, it’s largely a matter of helping them express themselves,” he said. “We want them to be able to function better, to find ways to let their true intelligence out.”

But inclusion doesn’t always work. In some cases, special education teachers aren’t available to accompany their students to regular classes, which limits the value of the students’ experience and puts an extra burden on the regular classroom teacher. And in other cases, a regular classroom setting is not the best environment for a special education student.

“It can be overwhelming for a special ed student to be in that big room,” said Claudia Morris, a special education teacher at Clement J. Zablocki School on Milwaukee’s South Side. “Some students just need more attention than you can give them in a large group setting.”

Morris, with 25 years experience in special education, teaches in a self-contained classroom where she is responsible for nine students with severe emotional and behavioral problems. She routinely deals with students who exhibit short attention spans and inappropriate behavior that includes temper tantrums and lack of impulse control. Nevertheless, many of Morris’ students have average or above average intelligence. “Once you get them in a small class where they can get the individual attention they need, their achievement soars,” she said. “That’s what keeps me going. That’s why I love my job.”

Morris, who has worked in an inclusion program in the past, said the same kind of behavior she is trained to deal with can quickly disrupt a regular classroom. “If a kid’s social skills aren’t up to par, I think it’s unfair to put him in a regular class,” she said.

She notes that inclusion programs can take many different forms, and are shaped not only by a school’s special education philosophy, but also by more mundane factors such as the availability of personnel and space. “In theory, inclusion is wonderful; we should aspire to it for all our kids, particularly as they transition out of special ed,” Morris said. “But it’s not for every kid, and it doesn’t always work in practice. In the end, it’s all about time and resources.”


While giving children with disabilities the chance to be educated in public schools has succeeded in shattering some of the myths about special education, that success has come with a hefty price tag. According to the Council for Exceptional Children, educating a student with a disability costs two and-a-half times as much as educating a student in general education. And school officials contend that as much as 40 percent of all new spending since 1975 has gone to support special education programs. The bulk of the money, they say, goes for personnel: teachers, teacher aides and therapists who provide largely one-on-one services.

Last year, for instance, the Milwaukee Public Schools spent $140 million on special education – about 14 percent of its roughly $1 billion annual budget. About 9 percent of the money earmarked for special education came from the federal government and 28 percent from the state. The remainder flowed from local sources.

Doug Haselow, executive director of the Association for Equity in Funding, a group of Wisconsin school districts seeking financial equity in the state school finance system, said that 20 years ago about 70 percent of the district’s special education costs were covered by the state. “But the special education population grew and the cost of educating special education students increased,” he said, “and the state [allocation] didn’t keep up.” In fact, the last state budget, Haselow said, included no increase at all in special education funding.

The increased number of students eligible for special education nationally is an issue slated to be taken up in the IDEA reauthorization process. The number of students identified as having learning disabilities, for example, has increased 38 percent since 1990, according to the Office of Special Education. And in 1999, Department of Education regulations made students with attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder eligible for special education; this added millions more students to the rolls. Today, one out of every 10 children in the U.S. qualifies for special education, compared with one out of 12 in 1976.

The problems are most severe in low-income urban school districts. There, factors such as poor prenatal and infant health care, lead poisoning and substandard day care lead to a higher incidence of children with disabilities. Consider, too, that low-income parents cannot afford the kind of medical treatment or tutoring services that can sometimes correct learning problems. The result: special education teachers working in city schools already strapped for money generally end up with higher caseloads and fewer resources than their suburban counterparts.

That’s the case at Milwaukee’s South Division High School, where 289 of the school’s nearly 1,600 students – roughly 18 percent – are eligible for special education. Even with a staff of 18 special education teachers, the figures translate into caseloads of more than 20 for those teachers who work with students with mild or moderate disabilities. Compounding the problem is the fact that nearly 40 percent of the school’s students receive bilingual services, which limits the number of general classes in which students in special education, most of whom are monolingual, can be enrolled.

Donald Krueger, South Division’s principal, said many of the problems his special education teachers deal with could be alleviated if the federal government would sufficiently fund IDEA. “If I had more money I’d shop for more teachers, more paraprofessionals,” he said. “I know it’s expensive, but having uneducated, non-functional adults in our society is, in the long run, more expensive.”

Krueger already uses money from his school budget to contract with Milwaukee Public Schools’ central office for both a special education supervisor and a diagnostic teacher to handle initial placement and regular re-evaluation of special education students. He also hires substitute teachers so he can give Hunter and other special education teachers release time to write and update their students’ IEPs.

Ada Rivera, principal at Audubon, agrees with the need for increased federal funding. “Given all the regulations we have to follow under the law, it seems only fair that the federal government give us more money,” she said.

Krueger and Rivera are not alone. A study released late last year by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research and citizen education organization based in New York City, found that eight in 10 school administrators say they have to use a disproportionate amount of money on special education. As a result of those concerns, the American Association of School Administrators has taken up the cause of full funding, making it a centerpiece of its legislative agenda.


West, of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, believes it is too early in the reauthorization process to predict how it will play out. While she calls the fight for full funding “an uphill battle,” she takes comfort in that the measure failed by only one vote last year. “It could go either way,” she predicted.

She also thinks legislators will have to decide once and for all if the problems plaguing special education – especially students’ poor educational outcomes – are due to weaknesses in IDEA, or to the fact that the law has not yet been fully implemented. “It’s true, graduation rates are not good, achievement needs to be better, and the number of students getting jobs has to be higher,” said West.

She argues the poor outcomes are largely the result of the severe shortage of both classroom teachers and university faculty certified in special education. According to the Council for Exceptional Children, more than 35,000 teachers work in special education classrooms every year without being properly certified. And the U. S. Department of Labor puts the number of new special education teachers needed over the next five years at more than 200,000.

“Without qualified teachers and ongoing research on which to base instruction, you’re never going to get good outcomes,” West said. “After all, if you have cancer and go to a plumber for surgery, what kind of outcome can you expect?” Again, funding is key. According to the Council for Exceptional Children, federal funding for teacher preparation has declined by roughly 50 percent since 1977.

Skrtic, of the University of Kansas, said he’d like to see teachers play more of a role in the reauthorization process. “Unfortunately, you usually end up with politicians, their staffs, big-time professional associations and the disability advocacy groups left to fight these kinds of things out,” he said. “Next thing you know there’s a new law that’s more political than practical.”

West agrees. Her message to teachers: “Become informed, contact your representatives. This is just the beginning. Teachers have a lot to offer.”

But Egnor cautions that even in the best-case scenario, IDEA reforms won’t necessarily translate into dramatic, widespread, meaningful change in classroom practice. “Ultimately,” he underscores, “it’s how teachers are trained, the practices they have in their repertoires, and their relationships with parents that make schools work, not what a law says. Sure, the law provides a basic foundation for good things to happen in schools, but ultimately it comes down to the individuals working in those schools.”

Priscilla Pardini is a journalist in Milwaukee specializing in education.