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After 30 Years of Special Ed. Law, How Far Have We Really Come?

It's been more than 30 years since Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. But when I was describing the basic tenets of the law and its provisions to a group of visitors from Kazakhstan last week, I wondered if they really got the impression the law was the landmark legislation that it is.

Consider that children with disabilities, in the past, were often denied an education altogether. Students with some of the most severe disabilities were institutionalized. Expectations for this group of students were low or nonexistent.

But the group of four peppered me with questions about special education here, hoping to discern things that work that could potentially be duplicated back home. It seemed that for every aspect of special education I described, I followed up with how there are troubles with that very facet.

Kazakhstan, they told me, has universal screening for disabilities by age 3. Granted, their country is smaller than ours, but it's equivalent to all of Western Europe combined and is the ninth-largest country in the world. But I thought this was interesting. Here, I'm told repeatedly by experts that early screenings—earlier than you might think—can eliminate the need for special education services for up to 11 percent of students who end up getting them. But these screenings don't happen with the frequency they should.

And here are a few things that have crossed my computer screen lately:

  • In Seattle, formal complaints on behalf of the school district's 7,000 students with disabilities have doubled over the past two years, the Seattle Times reports.
  • In San Francisco, the state education department is investigating whether the school district violated federal regulations by improperly denying summer school services to special education students to cut costs, the Bay Citizen writes.
  • In Clinton, Tenn., the school district is accused of isolating and secluding special education students in ways that violate state laws, the Knoxville News Sentinel says.
  • In Jackson, Miss., the school board actually wrestled with a decision to keep its accreditation and lose some of its autonomy in working with students with disabilities. Already, Jackson has been found not to be complying with IDEA for nearly two years. The state education department is giving it another eight months to do so, the Clarion Ledger reports.
And I could keep going.

I know it's not all dismal. Some of the more disappointing information seems to catch my attention more quickly than the upbeat pieces, like the story of a special education teacher in Sherwood, Ore., being named the Mensa Foundation's 2012 distinguished teacher. And just last week, speech-language pathologist Amanda Ihle tweeted that it was the best day in her career.

"Seeing a parent cry with happiness when they hear their 'nonverbal' child talk is so cool," she said.

Please weigh in. Was the overwhelming sense of concern I had that the Kazakh government might take its cues from the United States misplaced? Or exactly on point?

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