Forty-seven years ago, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) opened the doors for children with disabilities. At the time IDEA was passed in 1975 (originally named the Educational for All Handicapped Children Act, or Public Law 94-142), Congress found that children with disabilities were excluded entirely from the public school system. The passage of IDEA meant that no more children with disabilities could be turned away from school and required that they have available to them “a free appropriate education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs.”
In the years since, we’ve learned that merely opening the school building to students with disabilities is not enough. Now that the doors to school have been re-opened for most children with disabilities since the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take a critical look at how we’re serving students. In 2020–21, the number of children with disabilities who spent 80% or more of their day in general education classrooms reached a high of more than 66%. But further questions must be asked: are their needs being met? Are they being offered meaningful, supportive, safe, and inclusive experiences?
Data collected under the Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) and IDEA Section 618 illustrate both positive and troubling trends in the experiences of and outcomes for children with disabilities nationwide.
The rate of students with disabilities who exit high school with a regular diploma has increased from 52% in 1995 to 72% in 2018. Yet, we see concerning trends when it comes to discipline, restraint, and seclusion:
- Children with disabilities – from preschool through high school – are suspended and expelled at higher rates than their peers without disabilities, and black children with disabilities accounted for more than 40 percent of children who are suspended out of school or expelled for more than 10 school days.
- Students with disabilities served under IDEA made up 80 percent of the students subjected to physical restraint and 77 percent of students subjected to seclusion.
This data shows that while children with disabilities may be included in general education at higher rates than ever, they’re not always being offered equitable opportunities or reaching their full potential.
This IDEA anniversary, how can we, as a nation that cares deeply about children with disabilities, recommit to expanding meaningful opportunities and outcomes for all children with disabilities?
The U.S. Department of Education (the Department) and the Biden-Harris administration have made their commitments known and will continue to champion equity for children with disabilities. We’re focused on priorities that include increased funding for IDEA, reducing exclusionary discipline, addressing personnel shortages, and strengthening supports for students transitioning out of high school.
In March, the Department issued updated guidance and resources to ensure that COVID-19 mitigation measures continue to address the needs of students with disabilities and to help schools safely open their doors to all.
In July, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued new guidance to help public elementary and secondary schools avoid the discriminatory use of student discipline.
The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) continues to promote strategies to attract, prepare, and retain effective personnel who have the knowledge and skills needed to provide effective instruction, interventions, supports, and services to children with disabilities.
This work can be hard, but it is necessary, and I believe we are up for the task. It will take all of us — educators, related service providers, families, administrators, and policy makers alike — to make the kind of change children with disabilities deserve.
We’ve learned a lot in the last 47 years, including how to design high-quality instruction, support behavior, educate the whole child, and set high expectations. Let’s be urgent and commit to doing these things for all children with disabilities.
Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.