The Politics of Special Education: The Information You Need Right Now
Disclaimer: The information herein comes from currently employed educators and administrators who wish to remain annonymous.
How can you protect your child’s education and future?
Whether you are new to the school system, or a pro at dealing with the politics of special education, this article may help provide you with the information you need to know right now to help you become a more effective advocate for your child.
What does politics have to do with special education?
A LOT! Even if you think you already know your rights, you may be surprised by some of the facts provided here. Numerous links are provided to outside resources. After reading this report in full, please go back and click on some of these links for additional information. Remember – you have to be able to work with the system – and that is not always easy.
The Politics of Special Education
The definition of “special education needs” varies immensely, and each student with an IEP has specific requirements. Not all students require full immersion in a “special needs” environment, and school districts have the role of seeing to the best of interest of each child. But, what does that really mean?
Some states place twice as many students in special education as others based on their individual constitutional limits on taxes or their history of funding social policies. States that provide EXTRA FUNDING often see a LARGER NUMBER of students placed into special education.
Placing more students in special education IS NOT always the best answer or option. Overplacement saps resource dollars that could be used in more cost-effective ways, and states, districts, and individual schools have to weigh these facts.
One positive change was that in 1990, only 33 percent of students spent a minimum of 80 percent of their time in general classes in regular schools compared to 62 percent of students in 2014. Additional information on this breakdown can be found by checking out the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
Funding of Special Education Programs
Funding is currently available from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Schools have to comply with certain standards to meet some of these funding programs, and that is where some school districts come up short.
An excellent resource is the Pacer Center, located in Minnesota. They also serve the needs of children and youth with disabilities throughout the nation.
The US Department of Education provides a direct link to agencies in your state. It may surprise you to learn that just because a school receives “x” amount of dollars for a particular student’s needs DOES NOT mean the principal has to spend the money in that way! READ THAT LINE AGAIN. If the school board allocates $10,000 for the educational needs of your child, you cannot go in and ask to see a breakdown of how that money was spent. Unfair as it may seem, that is not how the “system” works.
In some schools, special needs children are often considered “walking dollar signs”. Yes, that sounds cruel…and it is. However, monetary spending is at the discretion of the principal. In some schools, the special education needs are at the bottom of the list.
What can you do to help the situation?
- Ask the teacher what is needed in the classroom. Find out the most important needs and how these items will benefit the students. Ask the teacher if she or he is ok with you speaking to the principal about this subject. The teacher may not want you to bring it up for fear of repercussions.
- If recommended, schedule a meeting with the principal to discuss the classroom needs and to come up with ways to address the situation.
- Consider contacting the Parent/Teacher Organization in the school to provide funding for the needs.
- Consider turning to local businesses that may be able to help or working with other parents to implement classroom specific fundraising programs.
Nobody is going to be as good an advocate as you are for your child. Yes, it takes time, research, and patience, but you HAVE to do it.
Go to school board meetings, call and ask for an appointment with the school district superintendent. Look for ways to help the students, such as through Special Olympics, which often provides many services to a school, such as unified sports team opportunities which can provide students in special education unique programs and special funding.
The Principal’s Role
Having a principal who is on board with the needs of special education students is important. The principal sets the standard for the school. Ultimately, anything that benefits the students will help to raise the core grades of the school, in turn often providing additional funding to the school.
If it seems as though the teacher is not receiving support from the principal, the next step for the parent after speaking with the teacher is often setting up a meeting with the principal to discuss the child’s (and the class as a whole’s) needs. If the principal is not on board – NOTHING will get done! READ THAT AGAIN.
Of course, if the principal does not seem to be a willing partner in addressing the situation, the next step is the district superintendent and the school board, and do not hesitate to let the principal know that you will be taking your concerns to the next level, BUT, make sure you have followed the appropriate “path” while getting there. A basic, simple guide is:
Should an issue arise, the best practice is to reach out to general and ESE teachers, respectively. Remember, ALL students are considered general education first. The next step would be to include the LEA designee (Local Education Authority: A person at the meeting that has the authority to allocate resources and approve the IEP) to facilitate individual problem solving as appropriate; this may require an IEP team meeting. When an IEP team requires additional support, district personnel are assigned to assist as needed to resolve specific issues. District personnel communicate specifics to the director of ESE for next steps as appropriate.
The Teacher’s Position and Role
The teacher is an advocate for your child, but your child is not the only student that the teacher has. Each student has needs and limited time. The teacher may not have the opportunity to respond to you right away, and your understanding and compassion of any situation will go a long way to getting you any information or services you may require.
Please do not expect the teacher to go out of her or his way to do things that do not directly impact the day to day needs of the child. For example, if you require information from the school office, take steps to get it yourself. While you may think it will only take 5 minutes for the teacher to get it, multiply that times the number of students and realize that the time adds up.
Visiting the class to see what is going on, and what is needed, is sometimes the best thing to do. You can see the class size, see what might be in need of fixing or replacing, and how better to serve the needs of your child. Volunteering is another way of making a tremendous difference in your child’s education.
Teachers often face many hardships, one of which is a shortage of staff -although a class may start out with what seems like the proper staff-to-student ratio, you have to look at the needs of the individual students. If some students require additional time with bathroom issues, you may lose valuable one-on-one time that can impact implementation of the IEP.
Advice for parents on working with your child’s teacher:
- Speak with your child’s teacher openly and honestly. Learn to read between the lines. Does the teacher seem tired or exhausted? This may be due to a shortage of staff. Does the teacher seem to really care? Most do care. They are often in a difficult situation in the classroom. Ask how much facetime your child is getting each day, what are they working on, and how are they approaching the IEP.
- Contact the teacher first -do not go over his or her head IF you have NOT yet discussed the situation first hand. This can be detrimental to the teacher, and in the end, hurtful to your child’s needs if a good teacher is transferred out of the classroom.
- Put yourself in the position of the teacher. What would you want a parent or guardian to say to you? You can attract more bees with honey: Speaking nicely and trying to understand their position will likely get you much further than threatening or fighting.
- Provide the teacher with any ideas you have used that help your child. If you know the secret to ending a tantrum or specific negative behavior, let the teacher know. It can mean the difference between multiple staff taking an extended period away from other students to address the behavior and a speedy turnaround that can benefit everyone.
- In many cases, the teachers are dealing with students that have varying cognitive levels. This is not a situation where all of the students can be taught at one time. That is why seeing that there are enough staff members present to address all of the needs is crucial.
- Finally, and most importantly, know that the teacher may face discipline or possible transfer to a less desirable school for speaking up. They might feel as though their hands are tied. What does this mean? If a teacher believes that your child needs a particular service, an extra staff member, or special testing, he or she may not be able to tell you this if it is going against the mandate of the principal. It’s about money. It is not that the teacher wants to withhold important information from you; it is that there is no other choice when it comes down to maintaining a job. YOU have to be an advocate for your child.
The IEP Meeting Rights and Laws
The Individual Education Plan (IEP) sets reasonable goals for the child and outlines the support and services that the child is to receive from the school and the school district. The IEP is developed by a team that includes key school staff AND the parents. You are allowed to bring anyone with you to this meeting – including private tutors, behavior therapists- anyone who knows, and has a vested interest in, your child’s well-being. Be sure to let your school team know in advance who will be attending your child’s IEP meeting so they there can be ”transparency” for all parties. It is best to not catch anyone off guard …… whether you intended to or not…so that everyone can be up to speed on the IEP.
Important fact – the school staff may not know the IEP rules or what is available to you. That is why doing your own research is crucial before attending these meetings.
The IEP meeting must take place within 30 calendar days after it is determined that the child has one of the disabilities listed in IDEA and requires special education or related services. Annual review of the IEP is required for achievement of goals and revision as deemed necessary. Additional information about the IEP can be found at the Center for Parent Information and Resources.
Here are some (not all) of your many rights for the IEP:
- The school must get the parent’s consent before making changes to the IEP
- You have rights to dispute changes to the IEP
- You have the right to see, make copies, and get an explanation of your child’s records from the school
- You have the right to an Independent Education Evaluation (lEE) of your child’s needs and skills by someone who is not a school employee, and while the school must consider the lEE results, there is no requirement to accept the findings
- You have a right to IEP and other meetings about your child’s education
- The school must provide written notice when adding, changing, or denying services to your child
- A “stay put” provision allows your child to remain where he or she is while you and the school go through a dispute resolution process if you do not agree with a proposed change
Working Together with One Goal – the Benefit of the Child
Ultimately, you all have the same goal: Providing the best possible services to the student. You have to work together.
Do not be afraid to speak up when necessary. Find local resources that can help.
Here are some previous articles that provide additional information:
Thank you to those that contributed to this article.