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.

The stigma once attached to children in special education is disappearing from America's public schools, according to a Public Agenda survey of their parents released today. But as Congress prepares to take up legislation governing special education in the public schools, many parents say getting information about services for their children is often a struggle.

And they offer mixed views on whether the right kids are getting the right services — 70 percent say too many children with special needs are losing out because their parents are unaware of what's available, while 65 percent feel some children with behavior problems, rather than learning or physical disabilities, get misdirected into special education.

Public Agenda believes this study is the first of its kind to be based on a randomly-selected, nationally-representative sample of parents of public school children with special needs. The survey is based on 510 phone interviews conducted during April and May. When It's Your Own Child: A Report On Special Education from the Families Who Use It was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Some experts have voiced concerns about the rapid growth in special education enrollment, especially among youngsters diagnosed with ADHD, and question whether schools and families are too quickto place students in special education. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last month that the parents of 7 percent of the nation's elementary school age children said their child had been diagnosed with ADHD, higher than originally suspected.

But contrary to views that special education has become a "dumping ground" for difficult students, the parents surveyed by Public Agenda were more likely to say they had to struggle to get their children the services they needed.

Just 11 percent said they felt their school had been in a rush to find a problem with their child, while 29 percent said their school was "dragging its feet." More than half said their school took the right approach. Nearly seven out of ten (69 percent) believe early intervention could have kept many students overall out of special education.

"While policy makers focus on whether special education needs more money and a major overhaul from Washington, the parents of children with special needs bring a different perspective to the debate," said Deborah Wadsworth, president of Public Agenda. "We heard no broad call for reform among the parents. While they share some of the concerns raised by critics, many of the parents simply cannot imagine what their children's lives would be like without the special services provided by their public schools."

The study showed that most parents, once their children receive special education services, tend to give the programs good ratings, and most believe that mainstreaming helps special needs children academically. Two-thirds (67 percent) rate their schools "good" or "excellent" in providing their children with the help they need. And 64 percent said that once their child was identified as having special needs, it was easy to get the services they needed, versus 35 percent who expressed frustration.

"Most of the parents surveyed by Public Agenda gave their own school programs good marks," said Wadsworth. "But there is a frustrated minority who say they continually run up against an uncooperative, unhelpful bureaucracy."

Progress report

Today, some six million children, or about 13 percent of total public school enrollment, receive special education services. In response, school districts have had to find well-trained teachers, determine how to apply new academic standards and how to balance the interests of all students. In a survey of its members earlier this year by the National School Boards Association, nearly 90 percent cited special education as an issue of moderate or significant concern.

In its survey of special ed parents, Public Agenda found:

  • 67 percent believed their school was doing a "good" (34 percent) or "excellent" (33 percent) job giving the help their child needed. Fully 77 percent said they feel treated as a part of their child's evaluation team and 69 percent believe they are offered real choices for their child.
  • 72 percent rated the skill and quality of special ed teachers as "good" or "excellent." Nearly seven in ten (69 percent) said their teachers know a lot about their child's disability and how to work with it, and 84 percent say their teachers really care about their child as a person.

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