On Special Education Day, we reflect on the importance of special education in ensuring students with disabilities have access to opportunity and achieve meaningful outcomes in public schools.
Born out of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-60’s, reform within the nation’s education system on behalf of students with disabilities started with federal legislation in 1975 that later became known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Congress found that children with disabilities were excluded entirely from the public school system.
Forty-eight years ago this federal statute effectively opened the school doors for children with disabilities.
The passage of IDEA meant that no more children with disabilities could be turned away from school and guarantees the right to a free appropriate public education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs.
Over the past – almost – five decades, we’ve learned that simply opening the school door to students with disabilities is not enough.
Disability activists, family members, advocates, and allies continue to demand full civil and human rights after decades of experiencing continued bias and barriers that have been threaded throughout society.
We must continue to take a critical look at how our education system is serving students.
Further questions must be asked:
- Are students with disabilities being offered meaningful, supportive, safe, and inclusive experiences?
- Do we hold high expectations for students with disabilities?
- Are students with disabilities’ needs being appropriately met?
We continue to see troubling trends in the experiences and outcomes of children with disabilities.
One stark example –
- The rate of students with disabilities who exit high school with a regular diploma has increased nationwide from 52% in 1995 to 72% in 2018.
- In Michigan, 57% students with IEPs graduate with a high school diploma compared to 84% of their neurotypical peers.
Stark inequalities persist in our education system, and we see concerning trends when it comes to discipline, restraint, and seclusion:
- Children with disabilities – from preschool through high school – are suspended and expelled at higher rates than their peers without disabilities, and black children with disabilities accounted for more than 40 percent of children who are suspended out of school or expelled for more than 10 school days.
- Students with disabilities served under IDEA made up 80 percent of the students subjected to physical restraint and 77 percent of students subjected to seclusion.
These data show that while children with disabilities may be included in general education at higher rates than ever, they’re not always being offered equitable opportunities or reaching their full potential.
We’ve advanced in research and understanding over the last 48 years, including how to design high-quality instruction, support behavior, educate the whole child, and set high expectations.
As another IDEA anniversary has passed, how can we transform the education system in Michigan to expand meaningful opportunities and outcomes for all children with disabilities?
Over the past year, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) under the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) – which is the government agency that administers the IDEA to improve outcomes for children with disabilities, birth through 21, and their families – launched its Raise the Bar : Achieve Academic Excellence initiative to ensure access to fair, equitable and high-quality education and services. https://www.ed.gov/raisethebar/academic-excellence
The Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM) is a trusted ally and partner for thousands of families across the state. AAoM’s Education pillar drives initiatives that address systemic barriers to education, focuses on student-centered advocacy, and educates families on related topics – working towards its goal to make Michigan a top 10 state for special education outcomes. AAoM serves as a community hub for families, partner organizations and state leaders in cultivating understanding of core barriers related to equity and access in the education system. At the intersection of race and disability, AAoM catalyzes stakeholders to drive transparency efforts toward system-level transformation.
AAoM will further collective impact to advance an equitable education agenda for children and youth with special education needs through our statewide grassroots effort under the Michigan Parent, Advocate & Attorney Coalition (MIPAAC). https://mipaac.org/
This work is hard, but necessary.
Let’s commit to making the kind of change children with disabilities deserve.