The beginning of school across America has many parents remaining concerned about the success of the year ahead. It’s been widely acknowledged that the level of education being provided to students in 2020 is not likely meeting typical academic standards. And it may take years before we see the costs to this generation’s learning and to the detrimental developmental affects that may result from a remote education.
There are risks for almost all kids. But for students with special needs, the shift to online learning created more roadblocks in what is already a long line of barriers for them. Simply put, it’s even harder than usual to get access to the services required for their education.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1975, is an extension of the Civil Rights Act. Recognizing that it is not only wrong to deny access to public school based on race, it is equally wrong to deny children with disabilities equal access to an education. And though IDEA sets minimum standards for every state to uphold, enforcing them isn’t so easy and each year fewer than half the states are in compliance with the federal law.
The fact is, IDEA is the only federal law that is left to citizens, i.e. parents, to uphold. School districts have come to learn that non-compliance with the law typically costs them nothing, because apart from complaints or lawsuits from families, no one enforces these laws. The common consequence of not providing equal education is only that they must adhere to the law moving forward. In the meantime, the hundreds of pages of rules and constantly updated regulations make it easy for schools to hide the ball under the cup while parents and advocates struggle to stay abreast of the services and accommodations to which their child is entitled.
States are not uniform in general when it comes to public education. The federal government has limited power with issues related to school funding, leaving disparities between states. Some school districts make calculated decisions on what they’ll provide, often with little regard for the children in their schools or for the law. The states that spend more money on education tend to have fewer lower-income students, so the poorest people in the country are receiving the fewest services. When the money isn’t there, it’s kids with disabilities that are typically the ones to fall through the cracks.
Until schools are required to uphold mandates to provide free appropriate education tailored to individual disabled students’ needs, it will remain the job of parents to stay educated on what their child is entitled to and to work hard to be sure that they’re getting it. And with another year ahead of potentially online or hybrid learning, the work will be that much harder. Parents of children with special needs should contact their school early and often.