Disabled Children Need a Better IDEA

Published August 30, 2002

It began in 1975 as a federal enactment intended to safeguard the individual rights of disabled children. However, 27 years later, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) has dissolved into a litigious morass that values process more highly than each child’s achieving good results.

Parental choice offers the best hope for reforming this $50 billion-a-year program.

Those are the conclusions of a new study by two Cato Institute education specialists, Marie Gryphon and David Salisbury. IDEA is due for congressional reauthorization this year, but partisan differences are expected to delay passage of any bill well into 2003.

At the core of IDEA’s original good intentions is the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), which public schools must create for each child deemed disabled. Gryphon and Salisbury note the IEP is just the opening salvo in a highly contentious process known as the “dispute resolution model” that practically guarantees parents and special educators will become adversaries instead of allies in helping the child.

“Procedural requirements intended to empower parents, such as a seemingly endless series of meetings to which they must be invited, have failed to live up to their promise,” the Cato scholars assert. “Many IDEA parents feel intensely marginalized by IDEA’s processes, which are driven by school district employees bent on preserving the special-education nest egg for future litigation-generated emergencies.

“School personnel usually arrive at the required meeting with a plan to present to parents as a fait accompli. They have superior knowledge of the ins and outs of IDEA and often intimidate parents who want a real role in the process [characterized by] professional jargon and procedural hardball.”

In essence, the protracted IEP process degenerates into preparation by school officials for a potential lawsuit. Parents can receive a lot or a little in the way of services for their child depending on how savvy they are about dealing with legal matters.

Clint Bolick, a public-interest lawyer with the Institute for Justice and parent of a child with a diagnosis of borderline learning-disabled, once observed: “If it’s this perverse for me, I wonder how the system works for parents who, unlike me, do not sue bureaucrats for a living.”

Toll on Teachers

The Byzantine nature of the process also takes its toll on special-education teachers. In some school districts, those teachers spend almost 50 percent of their time filling out paperwork. A federal survey showed excessive paperwork and bureaucratic meetings were the top two reasons special educators gave for quitting their jobs, a trend that has worsened the teacher shortage in this specialized field.

Another perverse effect of the federal law is that it has given school districts a financial incentive to over-identify children as disabled. The more pupils so labeled, the more federal and state funds a school district receives. In many cases, these children may be low achievers but not disabled by any rational understanding of that word. Indeed, the most explosive growth of special-education enrollments has been in the category “learning disabled,” which grew by an astounding 242 percent between 1979 and 1997.

Euphemistically called “specific learning disabilities,” this condition is, to the contrary, often so vague as to make it possible to label any child struggling with his studies as Learning Disabled. In a great many cases, the problem may be simply that the child hasn’t been taught to read. Eight in 10 children identified as having learning disabilities encounter their primary difficulties in reading.

Life Sentence

Once consigned to special education, many children stay there in what some have termed a “life sentence.” Economist Eric Hanushek found the average educational gain for students diagnosed with learning disabilities and placed in special education to be skimpy. Another study reported no measurable gain at all during the school year for 80 percent of poor readers in special-education remediation.

In Baltimore, for instance, only 9.6 percent of last year’s special-education third graders scored satisfactory or better on the Maryland performance tests in reading. By the eighth grade, the special-ed students scoring satisfactory or better had dropped to 1 percent.

Because IDEA funding is based on regulatory compliance rather than producing academic results, perhaps it is unsurprising that states focus on bureaucratic process instead of academic improvement.

What does rise sharply under the current special-ed regime is spending. In 1977, services for disabled students represented 16.6 percent of total K-12 spending. Today, they account for 21.4 percent of the $360 billion spent on elementary and secondary education from local, state, and federal coffers.

Parental Choice as the Solution

The Cato scholars advocate reform that would scuttle heavily bureaucratic dispute resolution and replace it with genuine private choice for parents of disabled children. States could implement such reform immediately, note Gryphon and Salisbury, simply by rejecting all federal funds from IDEA, and hence the strings attached to the money. They argue states could find they would save money by being freed from IDEA’s costly compliance requirements.

Political pressures may well preclude state legislatures from turning down IDEA funds, the Cato authors concede. Congress thus ought to amend IDEA to allow states to opt into a reformed system based on parental choice and devoid of dispute resolution. Parents could select from a menu of special services developed by the public schools, or they could take their child’s total subsidy to the private school of their choice.

Such a reformed approach would relieve parents of the Hobson’s Choice they currently face: Accept an objectionable plan fashioned by the district, or gird for the financial and emotional costs of a protracted hearings-and-appeals process. Allowing parents to take their subsidy outside the system would remove any financial incentive for districts to over-identify children as learning disabled. Without so much paperwork and so many meetings, special educators could focus on teaching the children.

Florida a Reform Leader

With its McKay Scholarships (enacted in 1999 and expanded twice since), Florida has moved in the direction of choice-based reform of special education. Parents who are dissatisfied for any reason can use their subsidy to transfer their disabled child to the public or private school of their choice. Last year, more than 4,000 disabled children used their McKays to attend a private school of choice.

Although McKay is “a big step in the right direction,” it remains hampered by IDEA’s procedural tangle, Gryphon and Salisbury note. Parents must go through the IEP process and their children must spend at least a year following an IEP before the family may elect to take a McKay Scholarship. Savvy parents can use that process to win for their children larger scholarships than similarly disabled children receive.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The Cato Institute study by Marie Gryphon and David Salisbury, “Escaping IDEA: Freeing Parents, Teachers, and Students Through Deregulation and Choice,” can be found at www.cato.org.

A Yankee Institute study by Lewis M. Andrews, “More Choice for Disabled Kids: Lessons from Abroad,” is available at www.yankeeinstitute.org.