Comments on the Recommendations of the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education

By: Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Education Task Force

Editor's note: This article was published before the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA. While much of the law remains the same, some changes have been made to the language and procedures. We continue to offer this article because it provides valuable information that is still relevant to the current law. For more information on the recent changes, visit our 2004 IDEA Update page.

Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities

IDEA accomplishments

IDEA is a good law that has literally transformed the lives of children with disabilities and their families. Over the past 26 years, millions of children with disabilities have received appropriate early intervention, preschool and special education and related services thanks to the enactment and implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The success of IDEA is evidenced by the following accomplishments.

The number of children with developmental disabilities who must live in state institutions away from their families has been dramatically reduced. In 2000, 2,130 children with developmental disabilities were living in state institutions, compared to 70,655 children in 1974, the year before the passage of Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. In 2000, the average state institution expenditure was $113,863 per child. Not only do these figures represent a major accomplishment in family preservation, but they also reflect a significant reduction in the cost to governments and taxpayers.

More young children are entering school ready to learn. Today, almost 800,000 young children with disabilities are participating in IDEA's early intervention and preschool programs where they and their parents receive support to enhance their development.

More students with disabilities participate in state and district-wide assessments. Today, students with disabilities are included in state and district-wide assessments. States report the following positive outcomes when students with disabilities are included in accountability systems: increased access to the general curriculum, more rigorous education, and increased academic expectations.

Effective practices are implemented in schools across the country. IDEA has supported, through its support programs authorized by Part D, more than two decades of research and demonstration in effective practices in educating students with disabilities to enable teachers, related services personnel, and administrators to effectively meet the instruction needs of students with disabilities of all ages.

More students with disabilities are completing high school. According to the National Organization on Disability/2000 Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities, in 1986, 39 percent of people with disabilities failed to complete high school. Today, 22 percent of people with disabilities have not completed high school. Students with disabilities who complete high school are more likely to be employed, earn higher wages, and enroll in post-secondary education and training than students with disabilities who do not complete high school. Moreover, students with disabilities who had graduated from high school were more likely to be employed at three to five years after leaving high school.

More people with disabilities who want to work are working. In 1986, 46 percent of working-age people with disabilities were employed. Today, 56 percent of working-age people are employed.

1997 reforms

Congress significantly reformed IDEA in 1997. One of the goals of these reforms was to increase student outcomes and results. Children with disabilities are explicitly required to have access to the general curriculum. The vast majority of students with disabilities are expected to participate in state and district wide assessments. These two new requirements will go a long way to raise expectations for the educational outcomes of students with disabilities. Its important to note that we are only now ending the second full school year during which the 1997 reforms have been available to be implemented in our nation's schools.

Uneven implementation

While there are many schools across the country in which children with disabilities are well educated, implementation of IDEA is uneven. Shortages of qualified personnel are critical and persistent; and funding for the three state grant programs and the discretionary grant programs has never been adequate. IDEA, as reformed in the 1997 amendments and when fully implemented and enforced, provides states and local school systems a framework to improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities.

Only when every public school has the necessary resources and employs qualified and well-trained staff who understand and accept their roles and responsibilities, incorporates research-based practices, involves parents as equal partners, welcomes all children and their families and believes children with disabilities can be successful, can we as a nation have confidence that IDEA is being effectively implemented.

No Child Left Behind Act

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) reforms our public education system, of which special education is a part. The new law requires states to establish a single statewide accountability system. States must define "adequate yearly progress" to include annual statewide measurable objectives for improving achievement by all students, including students with disabilities. These standards apply to children in grades 3 through 8. This provision builds on the changes made in 1997 to IDEA that required students with disabilities to have access to the general curriculum and to be included in state and district-wide assessments. While appearing modest in its policy, this provision has the potential to dramatically increase educational results for students with disabilities because states will have to establish a system of accountability that will measure how they meet the educational needs of all students, including students with disabilities.

According to research by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO), before the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, most states reported increased participation rates of students with disabilities in state assessments, and in many cases, improvement in performance as well. Participation rates in state assessments still vary, from 33 percent to 97 percent of students with disabilities, but continue to increase.

Performance levels also vary widely, with the differences between rates of students with disabilities meeting state standards and all students ranging from 20 percent to 50 percent. In one state, for example, 23 percent of students with disabilities met the state's proficiency standard, whereas 48 percent of all students in the state met the standard. In another state, 14 percent of students with disabilities met the state's proficiency standard, whereas 63 percent of all students met the standard.

CCD remains hopeful that student education achievement will continue to rise as more schools effectively implement IDEA and the No Child Left Behind Act. States should be given the opportunity to implement these existing requirements. Further, given the significant variation among states, it is clear that the Department of Education should provide significantly increased technical assistance to bring NCLBA to reality.

PCESE recommendations

In general: CCD concurs with the Commission's three major policy goals: focus on results, not process; embrace a model of prevention, not a model of failure; and consider children with disabilities as general education children first. However, the Commission's report fails to distinguish between areas of concern that require a statutory or regulatory change and areas of concern that require improved implementation and enforcement of current law. Moreover, CCD is very troubled that several of the Commission's recommendations are inconsistent with the Commission's major policy goals, and might result in reducing and not improving educational results for children with disabilities. For example, the Commission recommends permitting ten states to waive federal "paperwork" requirements. The report does not detail what requirements are considered paperwork, raising justifiable fears for some of our members that states could waive federal requirements that are essential to efforts to improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities. For example, is it a paperwork burden or a focus on results to consider the assistive technology needs of a child when developing the child's Individualized Education Program? How can there be adequate accountability without documentation of successful or ineffective programs and services?

Funding: CCD supports mandatory full funding of Part B of IDEA with all funds remaining within the public education system. CCD supports the Commission's recommendations to increase funding for Part C and Section 619. We also believe that Medicaid plays an essential role in the delivery of services to students with disabilities.

Unfortunately, the Commission report is silent on the issue of Medicaid support of services for IDEA students. Clear and coordinated guidance from the U.S. Department of Education and the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services must be developed that incorporates current IDEA requirements regarding where and how Medicaid services are delivered and that also streamlines documentation requirements. For children with disabilities three years and older, services must be delivered along side their non-disabled peers in the least restrictive environment. For infants and toddlers with disabilities, early intervention services must be delivered in the natural environment, usually the child's home or child care placement.

Current law encourages collaboration between general and special educators through the use of IDEA monies to fund integration of services, to benefit low-income students with and without disabilities and to develop effective school improvement activities and practices. CCD is concerned that continued expansion of the uses of IDEA funds beyond students who have disabilities may have profound consequences for all aspects of IDEA including child find, efficacy of services and the IEP process.

Disability categories: CCD believes that it is inappropriate to lump disability categories together. The Commission's recommendation to alter the disability categories will be fiercely resisted by the disability community. The real question should be whether the current system accurately identifies all eligible children. Are there sufficient evaluation tools and qualified personnel to administer them and team decision-making processes in place to determine appropriately whether a child is or is not eligible for IDEA services?

IDEA has a two-pronged eligibility standard. Special education and related services of IDEA are available to students who have disabilities and who need special assistance to benefit from education. Eligibility categories alone do not and should not dictate the services a student will receive under IDEA. The determination of whether a student has a disability and whether the student needs special instruction is based on the proper use of appropriate research-based evaluation methods that are administered by qualified individuals. Each child is unique and no two children with the same disability function in exactly the same way or to the same degree and, therefore do not automatically require the same set of supports to be successful in school. IDEA's greatest strength is its individualized approach.

Although the number of such children is subject to much debate, CCD agrees that providing appropriate services to children with disabilities as early as possible can reduce the need for special education for some children. For other children, such services can reduce the level of supports they need in order to benefit from education, or can better prepare them for educational achievement.

Personnel: We share the Commission's concern that every child should be served by highly qualified personnel, including general educators, special educators related services personnel and paraprofessionals. The commission report does not address the critical role that related services personnel play in the delivery of quality services to children with disabilities. While the Commission report acknowledges the critical shortage of qualified special education teachers and of special education and related services faculty, it does not address how these shortages will be resolved. CCD believes significant increases in funds for personnel preparation and professional development are required to hire and retain sufficient numbers of highly qualified personnel necessary to achieve improved outcomes and results for children. Interdisciplinary training is important to ensure competency in meeting the wide array of needs of all students. A specific timeline for implementation of these provisions is needed. We also recommend indexing Part D funding to Part B so that Part D is funded at a level that is 10% of Part B.

Early Childhood programs: The Commission recommends a "seamless system" for children ages birth through 21. CCD believes that current law provides states with the necessary flexibility to make the decision as to which agency or agencies will administer Part C. Evidence supporting the need for a change is not identified in the Commission report and data supporting the proposed change and what it would accomplish are also not included. Neither the assumed problem nor the assumed solution is clearly defined.

CCD does support the use of an Individualized Family Services Plan for preschool students with disabilities, when appropriate.

School Choice: The Commission's report recommends mandating that states allow IDEA funds to follow students with disabilities when they choose to opt out of chronically failing schools or districts. CCD believes that IDEA already provides for private school placement when the school district is unable to provide a free, appropriate, public education for a student. This decision is made through the IEP process. Under current law, school districts are required to pay for total cost of the placement, not just the federal share. Thus, CCD has concerns about the Commission's recommendation. For example, private schools may not be required to participate in state and district wide assessment, so a child's progress is not measured against his/her public school peers. Nor are private schools held accountable for a child's progress. Due process protections currently available under IDEA may not convey when a child chooses a private school placement. In addition, many private schools refuse to admit students with significant disabilities.

Research: Research-based instructional strategies must be the basis for appropriate services. Dissemination of research-based best practices to families and services providers must be a high priority. Part D of IDEA plays a critical role in the development and implementation of evidence-based practices to improve educational outcomes of students. Part D research activities guide Parts B and C practice and implementation. CCD again recommends indexing Part D funding to 10 percent of Part B funds.

The CCD Education Task Force understands policymakers are committed to increasing educational outcomes for students with disabilities served by IDEA. We welcome that goal. In reauthorizing IDEA, the Task Force urges policymakers to analyze carefully each issue of concern to determine whether the concern results from a problem with the current statute or a problem of inappropriate, ineffective or incomplete implementation of the current statute. Such an analysis should guide policymakers in determining whether changes are required to enhance implementation of current law or whether requirements of the statute need to be changed. We have provided a set of guiding principles to assist you in your review of IDEA.

Thank you for considering our views.

  • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
  • American Association on Mental Retardation
  • American Dance Therapy Association
  • American Foundation for the Blind
  • American Music Therapy Association
  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
  • Association of University Centers on Disability
  • Autism Society of America
  • Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf
  • Council for Learning Disabilities
  • Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
  • Division of Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children
  • Easter Seals
  • Epilepsy Foundation
  • Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health
  • Learning Disabilities Association
  • National Association of Developmental Disabilities Councils
  • National Association of Private Schools for Exceptional Children
  • National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems
  • National Association of School Psychologists
  • National Center for Learning Disabilities
  • National Coalition on Deaf-Blindness
  • National Down Syndrome Congress
  • National Down Syndrome Society
  • National Mental Health Association
  • School Social Work Association of American
  • TASH
  • The Arc of the United States
  • Tourette Syndrome Association
  • United Cerebral Palsy Associations

Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Education Task Force (2002)