I have been working on piecing together my thoughts on Betsy DeVos's appalling remarks regarding Special Education, IDEA, and FAPE for 24 hours now. I believe I finally have my most articulate, concise response possible, one I am calling with tomorrow.
DeVos, in her responses and remarks, indicated, first, a complete lack of understanding that IDEA is federal law and, second, that she believes states should have full control over how they meet the needs of their special needs students. These remarks sent an immediate chill of dread mixed with shock through every special educator, every parent of a child with a disability, every advocate or service provider for those with disabilities, and every person with a disability, whether or not they were able to benefit from IDEA. We experienced this chill because we have already been there, done that, and know the consequences.
In 1954, with Brown v. Board of Education, states and school districts were compelled to desegregate schools. Yet, few districts and even fewer states, both in the North and the South, were quick to do so. States dragged their feet for decades, white families fled further and further from mixed racial and socioeconomic environments into more and more racially homogenous suburbs, and into the progenitors of today's charter and voucher schools---then, white flight academies. The Religious Right as we know it today formed during this period, well before Roe v. Wade, in direct opposition to desegregation. This continued into the 1970s and, in some states, well into the 1980s, with segregation becoming increasingly hidden or socioeconomic as opposed to purely racial.
By the 1970s, though, education nationally was experiencing another major change. After a number of landmark federal court cases, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975. This law, built on ADA and the growing body of federal civil rights law, sought to ensure access to free, appropriate, public education (or FAPE) for students with disabilities for the first time in this country. Prior to this law, districts and states had no responsibility under federal law to provide any educational opportunities for such students. Some states, particularly in the Northeast, provided minimal options and residential schools for the deaf and the blind. Institutionalization of the intellectually and developmentally disabled was common. Children with no intellectual impairment, but significant physical limitations, including many with cerebral palsey and with complications from polio, were outright excluding from school in many states despite an ability to succeed academically with very limited intervention. Students with specific learning disabilities (dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, etc) were either classified as uneducable or were given the most minimal interventions in some states. Those who did have access to education were extremely lucky compared to their peers in states with nothing built into state law in regards to their education. Many children simply wasted away, their educations and their futures abandoned by the state.
Yet, in the late 1970s, school districts suddenly had to have programs, suddenly had to serve these students---with no money from the federal government to support those efforts, mind you. And this is where our tale begins.
Georgia was one of the strongest holdouts against desegregation. In fact, Georgia schools would not be considered sufficiently integrated until the 1980s and 90s. This is because some districts in Georgia found a clever loophole.
Intelligence testing and standardized testing has a consistently proven bias towards test-takers from white, middle and upper class backgrounds. This has been demonstrated since IQ testing began with the Army during WWII. African American students often score a few percentage points lower than their white peers, as do poorer students, hispanic and Latino students, and Native American/First Nations students. These score gaps are attributable to inadequacies and biases of the testing; however, of course, some saw (and see) them as evidence of inferior intellectual ability or linguistic deprivation. And this is where some Georgia districts found their loophole.
They began testing all students---or at least their African American students---and declaring them intellectually impaired or disabled based on what is and was known to be flawed testing. They then began sending those students to their own special schools. Some of which just happened to be in the same buildings that were once the communities black schools. They had found a way to resegregate schools---all because implementation of special education law (really, civil rights law) had been left up to the state.
Beginning in the 1980s, the federal case law regarding Special Education grew stronger, the federal DOE Office of Civil Rights gained teeth, and investigations began. Georgia districts taking advantage of the loophole were uncovered and those efforts dismantled. By 1990, the landscape changed even further with the passage of IDEA, the first comprehensive federal law and mandate, with funding (though never the promised 40%, on average under 15%) for Special Education.
States were forced to strengthen and improve their Special Education programs, to improve the quality and access, to train more teachers and specialists, and, by the 2000s, to serve students as inclusively as possible.
And, yet, states were responsible for most of the policing and the vast majority of the funding. Which lead Georgia---and others---to again find loopholes to exploit. In 2016, the DOE's Office of Civil Rights initiated a lawsuit in regards to segregational practices in Georgia's psychoeducation system. The allegations? Systemic warehousing of minority students in facilities that were not meeting even their most basic academic needs. Overwhelmingly, the warehoused students were African American, hispanic and Latino, and from poorer backgrounds.
Additional investigations and suits, in Georgia and many other states, have found consistent overrepresentation of minority students in Special Education and appalling access and programmatic quality gaps in poorer or more urban school districts. A special needs student in a wealthy, suburban district will have a completely different experience and often far better outcome (graduation rate, academic achievement, even future job placement rate) than a student in a poorer or urban district. Quality varies dramatically from state to state---a student in Massachusetts for example receives more comprehensive services than one in Mississippi as a matter of course.
This is what happens when states are in control of determining how special education is handled. Giving them even further control, by removing the oversight provided by the Office of Civil Rights and the mandates and accountability from IDEA, would only further exacerbate the inequalities. And the most harm would stem from the cutting or gutting of the small percentage of Special Education funding provided by the federal government---Special Education would become a wild west of haves and have nots with children losing out. We've been there. We know what happens. We cannot go back.
By all means, be a strident supporter of local and state control of education. Be a strong advocate for increasing quality of programs, of strengthening funding, of providing more and better opportunities. But, do not rob our children's futures by removing the federal role of oversight and minimum program requirements setting.
Shame on any and all who willfully rob children of their futures.