When It's Your Own Child: Views From Parents About Special Education

The stigma is disappearing, but what remains is the problem of getting the right services to the right kids at the right time.

Views From Parents About Special Education, Part 2

  • Nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) believe there is much less stigma attached to special education than in the past, and 55 percent of the parents whose children were in high school credit their schools as "good" (36 percent) or "excellent" (19 percent) in preparing their child for life after graduation. Just 13 percent of the parents surveyed said they had experienced resentment from other parents towards special education; 85 percent said they had not.

"I finally got my son placed in a school that I'm truly happy with," one mother said during a Public Agenda focus group that preceded the survey. "They take them out into the public, so that they can be with the other people. They treat them like normal people. I just like the way everything is set up."

But at what cost?

A key concern regarding special education debated at the policy level and in local school districts is the cost of providing special needs services, now averaging over $12,000 per pupil versus about $6,500 for other pupils. In addition, Congress has provided only about 15 percent of special education funding, far less than the 40 percent it originally promised in 1975 when it mandated the public schools to provide students with disabilities a free, appropriate education. The law, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), is due for reauthorization this year by Congress.

In a Public Agenda survey conducted last year, 84 percent of public school superintendents and 65 percent of principals said special education exacted a disproportionate share of school dollars.

In the current survey and focus groups, Public Agenda found that special ed parents were largely unfamiliar with the federal government's policy or funding roles in special education, as well as with IDEA. Very few in focus groups were aware of the growing controversy around special education that has arisen in education and government circles, and few of the special ed parents surveyed said they feel resentment from other parents.

In the survey, Public Agenda got mixed results from the parents on funding issues:

  • 53 percent rated their school as "good" (36 percent) or "excellent" (18 percent) in providing enough resources for kids with special needs. About a third (34 percent) said their schools need improvement. Ten percent said their school was "failing" on the question of resources.
  • 52 percent said "better programs and policies, not more money, is the best way to improve special education"; 42 percent said more funding is the best way to see improvement.

Clearing the air

Some critics have complained that special education has become too bureaucratic and time-consuming for local schools, and question the effectiveness of the services. A key concern has been that schools actively "recruit" students into special education for a variety of reasons, and that students who have behavior problems rather than learning or physical disabilities get "dumped" into special education programs.

A majority of the parents surveyed (55 percent) credit their schools with taking the right approach when evaluating their children for special services, compared with the 29 percent who said their school was dragging its feet and 11 percent who felt their schools were in "too much of a rush." The notion that some families push their children into special education just to get extra resources was dismissed by a majority of theparents surveyed (55 percent), although a sizable minority (32 percent) did either "strongly" or "somewhat" agree.

A large majority of the parents (70 percent) feel that too many kids with special needs are losing out because their families are unaware of the services available. Over half (55 percent) say it is up to parents to find out on their own what help is available because "the school is not going to volunteer the information."

One mother related her experience with the school psychologist, "You know what (he) told me? He said, 'If you weren't so persistent, I wouldn't give you these services.' "

On the other hand, 69 percent of the parents believe many students would not need to be in special education if they had received appropriate help earlier. And 65 percent say some children receiving special education services have behavior problems, rather than learning or physical disabilities. Asked if public schools were too quick to label African-American children as learning disabled, a charge heard from some critics,41 percent disagreed, 18 percent agreed and 41 percent said they did not know.

Over six in 10 parents (63 percent) said their school's evaluation process was "clear and straightforward" while 24 percent said it was"complicated and tricky." A third said school officials dealing with special education "are too concerned with paperwork and following proper procedures;" 63 percent disagreed.

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