by Patricia Lillie, LDA of America President

Early in February we received a message from LDA Policy Director, Myrna Mandlawitz; a message extremely relevant to the topic of this article – LDA Core Beliefs. Later, LDA as a member, received notice from the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities, that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) web page, had disappeared from the Department of Education website, but contained a message that stated:

Please note that in the U. S. the federal role in education is limited. Because of the Tenth Amendment, most educational policy is decided at the state and local levels. So, if you have a question about a policy or issue, you may want to check with the relevant organization in your state or school district.

We are glad to report that the website is back up and available. However, we are most concerned with the meaning of the message that was left on the website. At our recent board meeting at the conference, the LDA Board of Directors addressed the message, as it has a direct connection to the topic of LDA Core Beliefs.

LDA Core Beliefs
During the Conference, members of the LDA Board of Directors, members of the LDA Professional Advisory Board, State Affiliate Presidents and LDA Committee Chairs met to discuss possible revisions to LDA Core Beliefs, a priority list of standards addressing issues affecting children and/or adults with SLD; standards LDA will uphold in our advocacy efforts, as we speak up for individuals with learning disabilities. Our discussion centered on “draw a line in the sand” core issues. Sometimes compromise is important and necessary, but regarding some issues, LDA needs to be able to say, “These are the services and protections necessary to safeguard the rights of individuals with learning disabilities. We cannot and will not compromise when these services and protections are at risk.”

Early History of Special Education
In the 1970s, the early years of special education Federal Law, the Education of All Handicapped Children’s Act (EHA) guided State policies and practices in special education and there was little variation from State to State. As parents and professionals, we knew what we could count on; we knew what to expect for SLD evaluation criteria and we knew federal policies designated special education funds to be used for special education services. We knew if it was beneficial for our children to receive special education services in a pull out/resource room, it would be written in their IEP and it would happen.

Changing Times
BUT times are changing and in the scheme of things Specific Learning Disabilities seems to be viewed by some as a condition that is an easy educational fix rather than a significant disorder that requires individualized special education services, designed according to the needs of the student. In 2002 the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA also called The No Child Left Behind Act, known as NCLB) began merging Special Education with General Education and granting more decision making power to the States. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was again reauthorized in 2016 and the name changed to “Every Student Succeeds Act.”(ESSA). Again, decision-making power to the States was broadened.

Here are some recent examples of States using policy changes in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to make changes in State education policies, and how those changes are impacting students with disabilities.

● California: In 2016, the State of California responded to directives from ESEA with an initiative to unite special education services with general education. “Prompted by new federal goals that de-emphasize regulatory compliance in favor of student outcomes, the California State Board of Education is taking the additional step of merging special and general services in concert with the ideals of ‘whole child’ education”…1

● North Carolina: The 2004 Reauthorization of IDEA included Response to Intervention (RTI), a pre-referral general education initiative for the purpose of giving support to students who are struggling to learn and are academically performing below age and grade level. Initially most of the students who reached RTI Tier 2 were receiving interventions from special education teachers. Since RTI came with no timelines, a great many students in general education received months and months of RTI support well before some were eventually referred for a special education evaluation. At the same time, the use of a psychological assessment as a part of Specific Learning Disability (SLD) evaluation criteria was discouraged.

In effect, this changed learning disabilities from being viewed as a discrepancy between ability and achievement, or a pattern of strengths and weaknesses, to learning disabilities being viewed as “low academic achievement,” criteria that was established in the 2004 IDEA. In 2016 the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Division for Exceptional Children, changed the NC comprehensive evaluation for SLD to prohibit the use of a psychological evaluation unless the evaluator believes the student’s low achievement is due the student’s low IQ. Additionally, NC made RTI, an instructional initiative, the sole method of evaluation for a SLD and eliminated the “patterns of strength and weaknesses method” declaring, “there is lack of evidence to support the necessity of these types of assessments for determining eligibility or for informing instructional decisions.”

● Texas: In 2004, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) directed Local School Agencies (LEA’s) to reduce the percentage of students who were receiving special education services in Texas, to 8.5%. Across all 50 states, the average for the percentage of students served in special education is 13%. The reduction practice continued on quietly until the Houston Chronicle ran a series of articles in 2016, by reporter Brian M. Rosenthal that brought this disparity to light. The U.S. Department of Education responded to the facts in the articles, by holding “listening sessions”, and then issued a letter to TEA stating their concerns. It will never be known how many children were denied a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

● Illinois: On February 1, 2017, Governor Rauner’s School Funding Reform Commission recommended eliminating direct State funding for special education teachers, and instead providing State funds based on ONE special education teacher for each 200 GENERAL education students (no matter how many students with IEPs are in a school district).

Illinois now provides $9,000 in State funds for each special education teacher and other personnel providing direct services to students with disabilities. Advocates for LDA of Illinois are actively fighting this proposal as it is just funding NOT based on special education services. A school district could employ ANY number (or no) special education teachers, and still receive exactly the same amount of State money. In addition, the Commission wants to reduce State mandates on special education, such as limits on class size. This is a very difficult situation as legislation to do these things is tied to a Grand Bargain on the State budget, raising taxes, etc., as Illinois has not had a State budget for almost 2 years.

Direction and Core Beliefs
The statements below from Daniel P. Hallahan, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Former Chair of Special Education, University of Virginia, give us direction.

Fundamental to special education is the idea that some children are able to learn better than others and that some children will find learning some things virtually impossible. That’s why we have special education. It’s the erosion of these core beliefs that many reformers would like to see happen – reformers who assert that students with learning disabilities can be served in general education classrooms, with, at most, a little consultation from special educators.

Without a solid set of core beliefs the whole special education profession suffers and learning disabilities is the most vulnerable…2

First and foremost, we need to formulate our “core beliefs” and then use those beliefs as we speak up for individuals with Learning Disabilities. Secondly, we need to speak loudly enough so we will be heard and the needs of individuals with SLD will be taken into consideration – not after public policy is approved and in place but well before public policy is formulated and approved.

1. Chorneau, T., Cabinet Report, 11 April 2016

2. Hallahan, D. P., “Learning Disabilities: Whatever Happened to Intensive Instruction?,” LDA Newsbriefs, Jan./Feb. 2007: 24

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