Special Education and Poverty
By Liz DeLucia
Special education in America has a short but complex history. The idea that individuals with learning differences have the right to an appropriate education is a relatively new one, and, as such, the expectations for providing such educational services have changed drastically over the last half-century. The quantity and quality of services received have improved greatly; however, the issues that still exist in the system suggest a fundamental difference between the way students receive services in areas of high and low socioeconomic status.
In order to understand the problems that exist in modern-day special education, it is first necessary to understand how the system evolved to its current state. The concept of public special education first began to gain momentum in the 1960s as a facet of the civil rights movement. The Kennedy family, perhaps America's strongest political dynasty, contributed to this movement by increasing special education advocacy after Rose Kennedy (sister of John, Bobby, and Ted) suffered severe intellectual disabilities as the result of a botched lobotomy. While in office, President Kennedy's involvement in disability-related issues laid the groundwork for special education legislation to come.
The first piece of landmark legislation about special education was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Rehabilitation Act required that students with disabilities be provided with a "free appropriate public education" (sometimes referred to as a FAPE requirement) (U.S. DoED Office of Civil Rights). Although this was a victory for special education, what constituted an "appropriate" education remained unclear. However, in 1975, the Education of Handicapped Children Act was passed, which further mandated that all states that were accepting federal education funding provide services that would benefit children with disabilities in the system. In 1990, this act was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA requires that students be educated in the "least restrictive environment" or LRE. This means that students are required to spend as much time as is reasonable being educated with their typically developing peers.
Both the Rehabilitation Act and IDEA have experienced significant revision and improvement over the last thirty years. I do not discount these improvements; in this paper, I will demonstrate that the current state of special education certainly has praiseworthy aspects. However, there is a significant body of evidence indicating that the American education system, simply put, is not achieving the goals of the federal mandates in IDEA. Research indicates that there are significant differences in the success of special education across different levels of socioeconomic status. It appears that children in areas of poverty tend to receive fewer or lower quality special education services. I will attempt to explain the major reasons for this economic disparity. One of these reasons is the private enforcement of IDEA itself, and another major contributing factor is the quality of professionals working in poorer school districts. Finally, I will explore some of the proposed "first steps" for dealing with the poor quality of services that children in poverty receive in special education.
Many experts in the field of education, particularly the United States Department of Education, argue that our current special education system has achieved a great deal. Statistics from the US DoED's 2013 annual report to Congress on the implementation of IDEA showed a steady increase in the percentage of students who were being fully and partially included in general education classrooms. This indicates that special education is becoming more and more effective at fulfilling the "least restrictive environment" mandate in IDEA. The system has also increased the age range that it serves: individuals with disabilities are now guaranteed services from birth until their twenty-first birthday (Osgood 123). These are enormous accomplishments that special education professionals and advocates should be proud of, and I do not intend to discredit these successes.
However, the economic disparity in the special education services received by students is deeply troubling. Eloise Pasachoff, in her article for the Notre Dame Law Review, says that, "…the evidence suggests that children from wealthier families enforce their rights…at a higher rate than do children in poverty and that this enforcement disparity has a negative effect on the amount and quality of services that children in poverty actually receive" (1417). Pasachoff argues that due to limited funding and the way that special education laws are enforced, children in poverty receive comparatively fewer services than their wealthy peers. IDEA is administered through a "private enforcement" system. This means that parents and families play the largest role in determining the contents of their child's Individual Education Plan, or IEP. Therefore, it is important for parents to be educated as to the rights that their child is entitled to under IDEA and the Americans with Disabilities Act, in addition to having the means to pursue those rights. Evidence suggests that low-income parents have less access to information about the rights afforded to their child by IDEA. Since IEP proceedings are strictly confidential, there is very little evidence for parents to consider to when determining what an IEP is "supposed" to be like (Pasachoff 1437). Therefore, parents are forced to rely on their own informational networks to learn how the process works (Pasachoff 1437). Pasachoff's article shows that parents of high socioeconomic status (SES) have broader networks, and therefore have more access to information regarding the services their child is entitled to. In contrast, parents of low SES have very limited access to resources that would assist them in advocating for their child.
Due to this profound education gap between parents of low and high SES, evidence suggests that parents of lower SES were less likely to understand the special education system in general. For example, as Pasachoff relates, "one study found that while low-income parents were concerned about their children's education, they…neither knew the formal terms of the statute [IDEA]…nor recognized the concepts when explained to them" (1438). This lack of understanding about the process of special education makes parents more likely to accept the district's suggested services, rather than fighting for more than the proposed IEP allows. For example, applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is often not provided by public school districts, although it is one of the best scientifically supported treatments in the field of developmental disabilities. Despite its proven benefits, districts typically do not initially offer ABA at IEP meetings since it is time-intensive and expensive. Parents often have to specifically request and fight for this service, possibly in a legal setting. This is an issue of private enforcement; if parents are not educated as to what they are entitled to under the law, they will not be able to attempt to enforce it by fighting the district in planning team meetings or through legal action.
If parents of low socioeconomic status do want to take legal action against a school district, they are faced with yet another income-based challenge. Many parents prefer to bring an advocate or attorney with them when dealing with the school system, and obviously they require legal assistance if they decide to take the school to court in order to obtain the FAPE required by law. Of course, hiring a lawyer presents an enormous financial burden on the family, and this means that even when low-income parents want to make a claim against the school, they experience challenges in doing so. IDEA stipulates that, "In any action or proceeding brought under section 615 of the Act, the court, in its discretion, may award reasonable attorneys' fees as part of the costs to the prevailing party who is the parent of a child with a disability" (IDEA Sec 300.517). However, this allowance only applies when a parent successfully sues the school district. As a result, suing is incredibly risky both for parents, who may end up with a failed suit and a mountain of attorney's fees, and for attorneys, who are likely to be wary of representing low-income parents when there is a chance they will not be able to pay their legal fees.
Aside from enforcement issues that come up with IDEA, there are quality differences in the special education professionals in areas of high and low SES. Even if a low-SES student receives all the services they are entitled to by law, it is likely that those services will not be up to the same standard as those received by high-SES students. In her dissertation at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Anna-Maria Fall explores the differences in special education teacher quality across socioeconomic status. She points out a surprising example of quality disparity: the dissertation states that 30% of special education teachers in poor districts had not fully completed their teacher certification, as opposed to 14% in more affluent districts (30). The fact that such a significant proportion of special education teachers in low-SES districts do not have this basic indicator of teacher quality is deeply troubling. Fall's report highlights a number of other teacher-quality indicators, and schools with a high percentage of students in poverty score lower across all of these indicators.
Another problem facing special education professionals is the high rate of teacher turnover. High poverty districts have difficulty retaining teachers for long periods of time, both in general education and in special education. This leads to a lower quality of services for special education students because it "interferes with the sustainability of inclusive school reform" (Fall 94). Teachers with less intention to remain in the school community are likely to have lower levels of commitment to creating an inclusive community. Therefore, they may be less concerned about the wellbeing of their students and as a result, overall special education support suffers.
As is to be expected, teacher quality has a huge impact on how students, and particularly special education students, perform in the long run. In their report on this issue, the National Research Council found, "The same child can perform very differently depending on the level of teacher support, and aggressive behavior can be reversed or exacerbated by effective or ineffective classroom management" (3). For this reason, the decreased quality of special education teachers in areas of low socioeconomic status causes special education to fail at what it intends to do, which is provide an equal free appropriate public education for all students who meet disability criteria.
Although the problems facing special education disparities across SES are serious and appear daunting, there are appropriate "first steps" that can be taken to begin addressing these issues. The first step in fixing social injustice is to bring light to the issue and make clear why it matters. In the case of special education reform, academics are currently doing great work in uncovering inequalities; however, this information is not nearly widespread enough in the mainstream. In order to affect change, knowledge needs to be disseminated publicly by government and media, and the significance of the issue needs to be made clear. As with many social issues, people who are not affected by the issue (in this case, a majority of the population) do not recognize the need for change. It is important to specify the broader implications that seemingly "small" issues such as this have for defining the type of society that we are. Students who are both disabled and in poverty represent some of our most vulnerable, and the ways in which we choose to serve those in need certainly says a lot about our values as a society and a country. Although we live in a country that promises "liberty and justice for all," the disparities in special education represent a key example of how this is not the case. It becomes a moral and philosophical question: do we want to be a society who takes care of its most vulnerable, or do we want to be a society that believes it should be every man (or in this case, child) for themselves?
Of course, public awareness alone will not solve the problems facing special education. Many of these issues are the result of a common cause: insufficient funding. Special education legislation calls for the provision of universal, rather than means-tested, services for students across all socioeconomic backgrounds. Put another way, IDEA "explicitly announces its intention that resources under the statute are distributed equally, and it directs greater funding to states with a higher share of poor children" (Pasachoff 1417). Clearly, this equity in funding is not producing the intended result of equity in services. Additionally, although the funding attempts to be fairly distributed, it is still greatly lacking; IDEA has always been underfunded (NEA). Effectively, schools are mandated to provide services but are not given the resources necessary to do so. This happens to school districts regardless of SES, but has a greater impact in schools with less funding to begin with. The best way to assist with special education funding for low-SES communities would be to fully fund the federal mandate. However, due to the enormous political burden attached to federal funding, this is unlikely to happen in the near future. Therefore, it is essential to educate low-income parents as to the resources that their child is entitled to. There are currently some parent information centers (Pasachoff), and there is a wealth of information online, but it is necessary to increase access to these resources for parents in low-SES areas. Providing parents with this information will enable them to demand services that lower-income schools may be unlikely to offer without prompting. In turn, schools will provide more services to their students and may be inclined to push harder for the appropriate government funding to do so.
The teacher quality issue also needs to be addressed in order to improve special education for low-income students. The reasons for high teacher turnover and lower teacher quality are complex and varied, and thus it would be misleading to suggest that there is a "magic bullet" that can solve the problem. Anna-Maria Fall suggests that large, structural changes would be necessary to address the quality gap. However, she also suggests some less extensive improvements that would be likely to help, such as increased teacher support. Fall writes, "it is
likely that teachers in high poverty districts need more extensive supports… significant resources need to be directed toward preparing teachers for work in high poverty schools" (38). Fall suggests that providing early-career special education teachers in high poverty districts with mentorship and support will be a step toward improving teacher quality in these areas.
In a capitalistic society such as our own, there is no doubt that socioeconomic status impacts countless areas of an individual's life. However, when poverty and disability combine so that a young child requires significant support, it is our duty as a society to work toward improving that child's outcome. Under current conditions, special education simply is not achieving its goal of equal opportunity for all the students that it serves. Although issues such as parental access to information, funding, and teacher quality are complex and challenging, awareness is the first step to change. Small improvements can make a big difference, but only if we care enough to make them.