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.

Special Education Bus
Special Education Bus

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.
  • 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.

One of the key provisions of IDEA is mainstreaming special needs students into regular classrooms. A majority of special ed parents (56 percent) believe mainstreaming helps special-needs children academically and another 12 percent say it has little effect. Mainstreaming was viewed as detrimental to special needs students by nearly a quarter of the parents surveyed (24 percent).

Measuring Up

The widespread support nationwide for raising academic standards was shared in large measure by special ed parents both in the current survey and in Public Agenda’s Reality Check 2002 survey, which included a subgroup of special ed parents, released earlier this year.

Nearly 8 in 10 parents in the new survey said their schools should pay a lot more attention to the academic progress of students in special education. In the earlier Reality Check survey, special ed parents opposed by a 67-28 percent margin the practice of “social promotion,” in which a struggling student is moved on to the next grade rather than held back.

One mother during a Public Agenda focus group for the current survey complained, “…my son had four D’s and they were more than willing to send him to the next level without giving him any extra help. That’s failing the kid.”

Asked if their children should be expected to pass an exit exam testing their basic skills and knowledge in order to graduate, 34 percent said their child should pass the same test as other students and 50 percent said they should pass the same test but with some accommodations.Only 4 percent said their child should be excused entirely and 11 percent said their child should be given an easier test.

Among high school parents, 82 percent expect their child to graduate with a standard diploma. By a 43-27 percent margin, more parents believed the day would come when their children would no longer need special education services, while 29 percent said it was too early to tell.

Some Unhappy Parents

While most parents give special education good marks, Public Agenda found considerable unhappiness among a substantial number of special ed parents. For many families, frustrations have reached a point where one in six parents (16 percent) say they have considered taking their school to court.

Nearly four in 10 of the parents surveyed (38 percent) say their child would perform better with better teachers. Similarly, 39 percent said their child’s special education program was either failing or needed improvement as a good source of information, 35 percent expressed frustration in getting the special education services their child needed, and 33 percent said their school was doing a fair or poor job giving their child the help they need.

A sizable 34 percent of high school parents feel their school needs to do a better job preparing their child for life after graduation and 11 percent fail their schools in this regard.


In preparing When It’s Your Own Child, Public Agenda conducted three focus groups and four in-depth interviews with parents of special needs students, and 13 in-depth interviews with experts in special education. The report is based on a national random telephone survey conducted between April 12 and May 11, 2002 of 510 parents of K-12 public school children who have special needs. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points. The report was prepared by Jean Johnson and Ann Duffett.

There are many categories of disabilities that special-needs children may have. Parents in the sample named: specific learning disabilities, ADHD, speech or language impairments, mental retardation or emotional disturbance, hearing or vision impairments, autism or other disabilities.