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Legislation and policy

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Legislation and policy
Legislation and policy
Legislación y política
Mental retardation
Retraso mental
Learning disabilities
Inhabilidades de aprender
General resources / Recursos generales

A vital mechanism in establishing the rights of special needs students, setting special education policy, and securing funding and resources for special education is legislation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 made significant steps in this area, but by far the most groundbreaking law has been the Education For All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142), passed by Congress in 1975. Later amended to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), this federal legislation effected dramatic change for children with special needs (Council On Exceptional Children (CEC)). Thirty years ago, the education system in the U.S. excluded up to one million students because of physical, learning and other disabilities. Today, IDEA covers the special education of 6.5 million students (Disability Rights Education Fund). Part B of IDEA recognizes ten categories of disabilities: specific learning disabilities, emotional disturbance, mental retardation, autism, other health impairments, orthopedic impairments, traumatic brain injury, speech or language impairments, hearing impairments, and visual impairments (Turnbull et al., 2002).

Portions of IDEA are permanently authorized, while other parts require periodic review and reauthorization by congress. Since different people have different ideas about how IDEA should be implemented, the reauthorization cycle can and does result in significant reform of the law. Critics believe IDEA mires teachers and districts in unnecessary procedures and regulations (Center for Educational Reform at the Cato Institute). Some critics also believe IDEA is too expensive to taxpayers and want to cut costs by eliminating funding for special needs students whose parents send them to private schools. (Heritage Foundation, Institute for Justice, Fordham Foundation)

Recent legislation

On April 30 of this year, Congress reauthorized IDEA under the Improving Education Results for Children with Disabilities Act (H.R. 1350). The House committee that produced the bill boasts that it will reduce misidentification of special ed students by giving local school districts new flexibility and resources to improve early intervention; that it will reduce paperwork for teachers by allowing IEPs (Individual Education Plans) to be crafted every three years instead of every year; and that it will provide a total increase of $4.7 billion in federal IDEA grants to states over the next two years (Committee on Education and the Workforce). Many advocates for special education claim that the bill weakens IDEA. Problems cited include giving schools unchecked authority to suspend students for violating any code of student conduct policy; eliminating requirements for behavior assessments and plans; and falling short of full funding (Wrightslaw, Association of University Centers on Disabilities, National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems, CEC).

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Separation or Inclusion?

Some special education is conducted in classes and even entire schools comprising only exceptional students.  The principle of least restrictive environment, however, lends itself to a growing international movement in the field of special education often called "inclusion": the policy of teaching those with special needs along with regular students (and providing the resources necessary for this structure). The purpose of inclusion is to promote the development of communities where all people are equally valued and have the same opportunities for participation. Many believe that inclusion helps prepare special needs youth for mainstream life and helps regular and special needs students build mutual respect, understanding, friendships, and working relationships (Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education).

Principles of IDEA

There are six main principles of IDEA. First, the the zero reject principle disallows schools from refusing any students with disabilities.  Secondly, schools must conduct individualized non-discriminatory evaluations in students' native language in all areas of suspected disability. All information, including classroom performance and input from parents, must be considered. Thirdly, the principle of appropriate public education mandates that schools provide services suited to the needs of each and every special needs child from pre-school through secondary school at no cost to his or her family.  Another principle is that of least restrictive environment, which encourages the integration of students with non-disabled peers to the greatest extent possible.  Furthermore, the law guarantees procedural due process, through which conflicts between the parents and the schools can be resolved. In the event that the child's rights appear to have been violated, either party may request a due process hearing.  Finally, under the principle of parental and student participation, parents and students play an integral role in the decision-making process of the student's education. (Turbull et al., 2002)

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