Time for a New I.D.E.A.?

Time for a New I.D.E.A.

By Ed Heaton

Recently, I came across a program called “The Inclusive Schools Climate Change Initiative” (ISCI).  This program (more about it later), developed by the Center for Applied Psychology at Rutgers, led me down the rabbit hole of the I.D.E.A.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed by Congress in 1975 to assure funding for the cost of special education services for students with disabilities. The Act has never been fully funded. In the Act, Congress set a maximum target of 40% of the cost of funding special education services, with states and school districts spending the other 60% of the cost. Over the years, the Act has never been fully funded. For example, in the year 2014, Congress allotted $11.48 billion to pay for approximately 16% of the cost of special education. This is $17.17 billion below the full funding level of $28.65 billion.  This funding only covers Part B of the I.D.E.A., which is for students from 5 to 21 years of age.


One would think after 38 years of funding that there would be enough information to see if transition programs for school age students were successful in either leading them to gainful employment or proceeding onto a post-secondary education. Unfortunately, the claims of transition advocates cannot be verified.  In a study released in August 2013 by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, it was stated that, “Despite the efforts of policymakers and practitioners, a gap remains between post-high school outcomes of students with disabilities and outcomes for other students.”   The study found that there was not enough empirical information to determine whether transition programs had helped people with disabilities or not.  Part of the problem was that out of 10,752 studies considered, only 43 were found eligible for review.  Therefore, there was not enough evidence to conclusively prove whether or not transition programs were effective in meeting their goals.


Anecdotally speaking, from my own experience and those of others, transition has been effective on a one-to-one basis.  For example, I once helped a gentleman who was blind get an internship at Home Box Office (HBO) while he was in college.  He was the only person with a disability to respond to my request to apply for an internship.  This was after I obtained the names of candidates from the former President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.  What this person had going for him, beside his own ability, was that his mother would do anything for him to achieve his life goals.  He later went onto graduate from Seton Hall University at with both undergraduate and graduate degrees.


Unfortunately, what had happened with I.D.E.A. is that special education services have become a largely unfunded mandate, due to the fact that Congress has never completely funded the law it passed in 1975. Therefore, what has happened is that people who need special education services are caught in a never-ending struggle between themselves and their school systems, due to the cost of services.  Now add in the fact that there is no overall conclusive evidence that transition programs have helped to improve educational outcomes, and it leads to a question.  What is the most effective way of funding special education services?


In the example I gave above, as well as my own personal life experience, any successful transition for people with disabilities starts with the parents of a disabled individual.  Perhaps a more effective way of providing special education services is a federal voucher system, where the parents would be responsible for obtaining the services needed for their children to succeed.  This may come as anathema to those advocates who believe that the free public education system should include proper educational and transition services, but if the current way is not working, what do you do?


Lost in Transition


The goal of the ISCI program, mentioned above, is to “improve school inclusion practices by creating a school climate that provides opportunities for growth and development for all students and improves engagement and social participation of students with disabilities.”  The program tries to accomplish this by creating programs to promote more interaction and understanding between non-disabled students and students with disabilities. As an example, in Mendham, New Jersey, a program was developed to raise disability awareness by having students read books about children with visible and invisible disabilities.  Programs were also developed in other school districts based on the same set of ideas.


Say what? The problem isn’t the lack of inclusivity in a specific school or school system.  The problem is that the students aren’t there because they don’t have the specialized services available to them that allow them to be part of the school.  The main problem is the fact that the I.D.E.A. is underfunded.  Changing the climate without addressing the main problem kind of seems as useful as one’s appendix.  Not a bad thing to have, but you can certainly live without it.


Instead of nibbling at the edges of the problem, the focus of educational efforts should be to work toward complete funding of the I.D.E.A.  People are most afraid of what they don’t know.  The only way to remove that fear is to put more children with disabilities into the schools so that natural social bonds can form between students.  Trying to force-feed the process by changing the climate on a school-by-school basis has a very limited and perhaps only short-term effect.


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