April 27, 2022

Fighting for Our Kids: Special Education Services Need an Overhaul. But Will MN Invest?

By Jennifer Bertram

The number of students with neurodevelopmental disabilities, like Autism, ADHD, and speech and language disorders, has increased since Minnesota’s education system was established decades ago. But funding and services have not kept up with the growing needs in schools in the state and across the country. In a moment when legislators are evaluating whether and how they will allocate resources in K-12 education, we must also ensure the resources we provide meet the needs of children in the education system today.

Navigating the process of asking for Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for my children with Autism, ADHD, and mental illness, I have become more convinced that school-based special education services do not effectively support their needs. Nor do staff have sufficient training to effectively address or embrace their neurodiverse symptoms and characteristics. And this is following a years-long effort to access special education in the first place. 

Does this lack of adequate support mean my children’s (and many others) access to an “appropriate education” is forfeited?

Does this lack of adequate support mean my children’s (and many others) access to an “appropriate education” is forfeited? Unfortunately, without additional investment in special education services, yes—whether it’s legal or not.

Legally, my children—and all children diagnosed with a disability—are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the United States. What that means, by definition, is rather vague. The criteria state that: education services must meet special needs, educate students with disabilities with non-disabled classmates, make evaluation and placement decisions using appropriate procedures, and follow due process. In addition, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed in 1975, established a required pool of funding for special education services in schools. Children qualify for an IEP based on whether they have a disability that keeps them from learning “adequately” in a general education classroom. They may also be eligible for Developmental Adapted Physical Education (DAPE). 

That said, funding for these services has not kept up with demand or the growing cost of providing support. In contrast, more children have complex needs, which are generally unsupported by the services available in special education classrooms.

What it actually looks like for students with disabilities

A special education class often replaces another course, so middle and high school youth must sacrifice a music course or other elective to participate in a social-emotional learning (SEL) class, strategies class, or a transitions class. (Transition classes are designed to help students work on interpersonal skills, learn tools to manage their workload, and help create a plan for completing high school and transitioning to work.) 

Additional services may include transportation, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. Or an IEP may include accommodations, such as preferred seating options in the classroom, extra time for test-taking, and access to the resource room for breaks from classroom activity. Teachers are asked to honor these accommodations, but in my experience, they’re often applied unevenly or deemed discretionary.

Take access to a “resource room” for example: I’ve often wondered what they mean by that label. The resource rooms I’ve seen are often empty without much you can describe as a “resource.” Sometimes there are tables and chairs, and that’s about it. Children can go to the room if they feel overstimulated and need a break. But what resources and training do educators and staff have to prevent the need for a break from the classroom in the first place? Taking breaks from learning while the class moves on in instruction without you adds up day after day and year after year.

It’s not too late for kids in school right now; it’s time to take action.

In our experience, staff and educators need an improved understanding of the needs of children with neurodevelopmental disabilities. Currently, they don’t have the resources to provide adequate support to ensure that all children have access to the educational opportunities that they deserve. This conversation is urgent. Will we invest in our children or leave them behind? We must invest in special education services—and retool them to ensure they meet the needs of kids in the education system today.

EdAllies seeks to elevate diverse voices and foster a candid dialogue about education. While we provide our blog as a platform for EdVoices and other guest contributors, the views and opinions they express are solely their own.

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