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As a former public school teacher, the commotion surrounding the IDEA, (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), reauthorization being considered by congress this year has grabbed my attention. This act, composed and signed into law in 1997 by President Clinton has gone a long way toward insuring a fair and reasonable approach to educating students with disabilities.
So what are the issues?
It was already federal policy for public schools to provide a free and appropriate education for all students when this new legislation was drafted. Parents and advocacy groups had been working long and hard to move toward a more integrated approach to bringing their children out of institutional settings and providing community-based alternatives. Unfortunately, school systems would move toward segregated sites and programs as a means of accomplishing this feat. This process of "integration" has evolved tremendously in many areas of this country over the past twenty-five or so years. The development and use of the IEP, (Individualized Education Plan), has been probably the greatest tool in the accomplishment of this task.
There are many teachers who note that the IEP process is very time consuming. Surveys indicate that most special education teachers agree with this. Also the meetings that are associated with this process consume anywhere from a half of a day to one and a half days per week in teacher time. Personally, I have had issue with this element of the process myself. It is not so much a matter of wasted time as it is a matter of not enough time. All teachers have extracurricular activities that take them beyond the regular eight-hour day for which they are paid. Unlike the regular education teacher, the special programs teacher cannot spend their "planning" time in lesson preparation and the gathering of materials. This often occurs on their own time. Ultimately, a teacher's salary is just not commensurate with the amount of work required!
The idea of increasing the salary to compensate for the additional time is not a new one. The Powers That Be, however, are less than excited about increasing any funding. The fact is, Congress has already agreed on the amount of money to be allocated to this budget. However, at this time, the money is tied up. Individual spending Bills are subject to separate approval. This approval is contingent on the outcome of various committee hearings and meetings.
A large part of the reauthorization debate on Capital Hill involves money. More money is needed for the ongoing implementation of special programs in every state of the Union. Teacher salaries, additional support staff, materials, adaptive equipment, and administrative costs continue to strain budgets across the board. Current proposals focus on the proposed voucher system to fix this problem. Some would have us believe that by a magical slight of hand the money problem could be solved by giving each parent a couple of thousand dollars and allowing them to choose the best services available to them in their area. Then, they just plunk that money down and, "viola", all the problems are solved!
How realistic is this in your area? Depending on what is available in your local school districts, sometimes these options are very limited. As far as going to a nearby private school, well, consider that a private school has the option of refusing to take students. This is the hallmark of the term "private".
In my humble opinion, the only thing the voucher system will do is to rob public schools of more and more financial resources. As far back as Thomas Jefferson, the sentiment has been that this country will not be able to maintain its freedom from dictatorial control without its population having an equal opportunity to become educated. The Public School system is critical to this balence of power. If our government allows the segregation of the "haves" and "have-nots" by siphoning off federal moneys to subsidize private schools, this equality will diminish. The quality of education for all public school students will suffer, especially those who are labeled as being disabled.
Another aspect of this IDEA, is the actual process of screening students to determine needs. There is a disproportionate number of African-Americans using special education services. Some would claim this is a new form of segregation. Others claim that this is a result of culture-biased assessments that only put minority groups at risk of failing to be white middle-classed citizens. The creation of multiple testing procedures that pinpoint specific learning disabilities must be created and used consistently throughout the country. Developing and disseminating these tests is very expensive. The question is, "Is it necessary?"
In some school districts this may cause some embaressment to those who do not want to adjust curriculum standards to embrace different cultural values. However, allowing for any inequality within the system opens the door for additional abuses.
In some instances the lack of appropriate testing can result in services not being provided. Entitlement should not be a questionable aspect of this process. Some federal regulation of placement policies and practices would go a long way towards meeting individual needs within the public schools. Funding provided for standardized assessment and testing proceedures would provide additional continuity.
This must also be the case with the use of the I.E.P.. Currently, some schools are telling parents that this document was meant to be a long-term guide, good for three years. Only until recently has this come into being. The I.E.P. has and should remain an annual report with a semi-annual, mid-year review. Changing this process has already brought strong protests from parents and advocacy groups. In many cases, the result of this change in policy has been an increased resistance from school administrator to adding or modifying elements of a student's program, despite changes in the individual's situation.
Over a three-year period, many things can change. Physical conditions, changes resulting from ongoing therapies, medication changes, the advent of new adaptive equipment, and so forth, can be cause for changes in instructional strategies. If school administrators are truly trying to lesson their teachers' burdens, then why not assign additional support staff or decrease class sizes? My experience has been that many are looking for ways to get around such increasing financial obligations. Most parents and teachers agree that the I.E.P. has been the primary factor in holding the school system accountable for the services it provides. Curbing this document's responsiveness to changing conditions can only result in more frustration on the part of the parents.
Then there is the matter of recruiting and keeping qualified teachers. As I noted earlier, the teacher's salary is far from adequate for the amount of work expected from them. Most teachers depend on two salaries to manage their financial affairs. This is true of most teachers in general. It is even more critical to the special education teacher who knows there is not enough time in the day. The burnout rate is tremendous! There is a desperate need across this country to provide adequately trained professionals to fill this role. Money has to go into this effort.
I have only touched on a few of the basic elements of this debate in this article. I would encourage anyone interested in this matter to seek out organizations and individuals directly involved in the process. Then write your Congressional representatives. Express your concerns and opinions. Only in this way will the process be served.
For the government's perspective click this link - PRESIDENT'S COMMISSION ON EXCELLENCE IN SPECIAL EDUCATION REPORT: http://www.ed.gov/inits/commissionsboards/whspecialeducation/reports.html
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