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Proposals for Reforming Special Education Law

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, lawyer Miriam Kurtzig Freedman shares some ideas for dramatically changing IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

An attorney might propose ways to reform the law—due for reauthorization for several years now—that are beneficial to that profession. But that's anything but the gist of these suggestions.

If anything, Freedman says the law too easily promotes conflict that involves lawyers and parents challenging school districts. The mere specter of a lawsuit heavily shapes how students with disabilities are served, she writes, whether or not it's in the best interest of a particular child.

"The fear of litigation is pervasive, with schools forced to use the education equivalent of 'defensive medicine,' in which they focus more on rigid compliance than on outcomes. This is despite the fact that there are actually few appeal hearings and most parents seem satisfied with their children's services. During the 2010-2011 school year, for example, Massachusetts provided special education to 166,000 students. Parents rejected only 8,348 of the IEPs proposed for their children—544 hearings were requested, and just 35 appeals decisions were written. Often, schools decide that settling cases (even when they believe they are right) is a safer way to proceed."

Freedman proposes ending "the adversarial approach of 'private enforcement' by parents and use other dispute resolution models, such as via mediators and ombudsmen or federal and state enforcement mechanisms that encourage trust-building and collaboration between schools and parents."

Her ideas for reforming the complex law also include something the federal Education Department seems to be taking baby steps toward: focusing on outcomes instead of compliance, the latter of which has become the hallmark of the law. Reviews of how states are working with students with disabilities are being overhauled right now, for example.

But the law needs to take these ideas further, she writes. In addition, improving regular education for all students could drop the number of kids identified as needing special education. "When developing inclusive programs, schools should base them on effective teaching practices that improve educational outcomes for both students with disabilities and regular education students. As part of this mission, align IDEA and [the No Child Left Behind law] to end confusion."

Finally, she says diagnosis of many students who are ultimately recipients of special education services is often too late and inexact. "The far better solution is to provide timely and appropriate education services for all students in our schools, based on their current performance, without the need for a diagnosis or label."

Freedman isn't the only one thinking about reauthorization of IDEA. In a blog post for the federal Office of Disability Employment Policy, the Autism Society said it is soliciting input on how IDEA should change when it is renewed.

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