Federal policy has transformed the education of students with disabilities in the United States. Prior to the 1970s, exclusion was largely the rule for millions, who were placed in separate schools from their peers and often inappropriately educated because of their physical and behavioral disabilities. But in 1975, the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (originally the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act) began the process of ensuring that these children be integrated with their peers whenever possible, and evaluated, accommodated, and supported to fulfill their potential.

The Obama administration expanded federal protection of students with disabilities, but as the Department of Education reviews all policy guidance in the wake of President Trump’s executive order on regulatory reform, there’s a concern in the special education community that policies may shift. We spoke with Laura Schifter, an expert on special education policy and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, about what districts can expect, and how schools can continue to support their most vulnerable students.

How is federal policy shifting for students with disabilities?

The Obama administration put forth several guidance documents that changed the way the federal government protected students with disabilities. Now, the Trump administration could potentially rescind that guidance or take away those regulations — similar to the way it took away Obama’s guidance on protecting transgender students. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but from my perspective, the hope is that the regulations and guidance stay in place.

What policies, specifically, could be rolled back?

The Obama administration released a regulations package in December 2016 that they called Equity in IDEA. The regulations were meant to get more states to address the fact that there are disproportionately high numbers of students of color identified for special education, placed in segregated placements, and disciplined at high rates. In part, the regulations ensure states have a consistent way to measure significant disproportionality, and the regulations provide additional flexibility for districts in spending IDEA money on interventions.

Another important guidance letter that came out in August 2016 was on supporting students who have behavioral issues associated with their disabilities, ensuring that those students have behavioral supports in school. That guidance really dives into the implications for practice, expounding on how to implement positive behavioral interventions and supports, and ensuring students have the services that they need.

The third piece of guidance, which was issued in November 2015, is about defining free and appropriate education (FAPE) for students with disabilities. It also ensures that FAPE is tied to the academic standards for the grade in which the student is enrolled. The guidance emphasizes what’s called “standards-based IEPs,” which ensure that IEPs (individualized education plans) focus on how to help students access grade-level content tied to academic standards. It’s trying to get schools to move away from creating either very remedial IEPs or IEPs unrelated to academics.

Can states continue to follow these guidance documents, even if President Trump rescinds them?

Of course. Guidance works by sending a signal that should the Department of Education monitor enforcement, then this is the lens they will use to interpret the law. I think in this case if the guidance documents are rescinded, some states will likely excel and continue to do the good work they’re doing for students with disabilities, and some districts within states are going to do the same thing. But other states and districts, without a federal backbone, just aren’t going to make progress.

What advice do you have for teachers who want to continue to support children with disabilities, even if their state or district chooses not to follow these guidelines?

Teachers or principals can be huge advocates in changing perspectives in the district. I think the most important thing is for principals and teachers to empower themselves by learning what’s in the law and best practices for students with disabilities.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students who find out that the district they taught in was not following the law, or that they had felt like things weren’t going well in the classroom, but they didn’t know where to turn to find helpful information. If they were empowered to know the law and then advocate on behalf of implementing it effectively, I think that would lead to real change.

A lot of people in special education have a mindset that it’s all about compliance, but if you take a step back and understand the purposes of the law, I think you’ll see this less as compliance and filling out IEPs left and right, and more thinking about, “Well, how do I problem solve to ensure my school is better meeting the needs of kids with disabilities?” And when educators find ways to increase opportunities for students with disabilities through frameworks like Universal Design for Learning, they will see benefits for students with and without disabilities across their schools.

The Obama administration also worked to disseminate tools, research, and strategies about implementing these guidelines, and I don’t know why we would take a step back from that. They started an initiative called Rethinking Discipline to help districts reform their discipline policies. They had webinars disseminating that information to school leaders. And those last two guidance letters I mentioned actually gave examples and advice to practitioners to make them usable.

If these letters are rescinded, then that’s fewer resources for teachers and states in thinking about implementing IDEA and civil rights laws. And changing that model so that the federal government doesn’t have as much of a role in education means we lose a big resource that’s trying to give valuable information to practitioners.

This story by Leah Shafer was originally published in Usable Knowledge, a publication of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.



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