States, Feds and Special Ed

The standard for evaluating states' special education efforts is shifting from access to outcomes.
September 2000
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

At first glance you might chalk it up to good old-fashioned federal hypocrisy: the U.S. Department of Education slamming Massachusetts for its failure to serve disabled students under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Why hypocrisy? Here's why:

The Disabilities Education Act, passed in 1975, in essence requires states to accommodate disabled students in ways that maximize educational access while minimizing their isolation from other students. And since 1975, the U.S. Department of Education has been dutifully traveling the country slapping wrists and slapping on sanctions in those states that aren't living up to that federal mandate. Fair enough, except that the 1975 law made another promise: It promised that the federal government would kick in an annual allocation to the special ed effort equal to 40 percent of what states were spending on it themselves.

It will come as little surprise to veteran fed watchers that Congress has never even come close to keeping that commitment. And while some might argue that asking an executive agency such as the Education Department to restrain itself in light of the less-than-honorable fiscal behavior of the legislative branch, it is still a bit galling that Washington insists on sanctioning states based on a law that the feds themselves have chronically flouted.

Fortunately, states have for the most part kept their eyes on the fundamental issue: serving disabled kids. State officials have devoted far more energy to developing programs than they have spent complaining about the feds' failures.

In fact, the state response has been far from the classic tin-cup cry that frequently goes up when states or localities are short-changed by their pals in Washington. State special ed directors, to be sure, would love it if the feds would allocate the money they're supposed to. But the debate over the cost of special education in the U.S. is much too complex and nuanced ever to be adequately addressed by simply trying to extract more money out of the federal government, and state special education officials know that better than anybody. Indeed, some see spending on special ed as a potentially bottomless pit down which untold cash could continue to pour with little effect unless the terms of the discussion change.

Which is why two concurrent trends in the whole area of special education bear watching.

The first trend is straightforward enough: The federal government still isn't keeping its 1975 promise, but it is gradually moving closer to doing so. Full federal funding in 2001 would be about $15 billion. Congress proposes to spend $6.2 billion, up from $4.9 billion this year. Given the history of the whole issue, that does represent progress.

Much more interesting and potentially profound, however, is the second trend: a shift in focus from access to outcomes in judging the performance of a state's special education effort. When special ed first began emerging as an issue back in the early 1970s, the questions asked were almost entirely about access. Washington simply wanted to know whether all kids were getting the services for which they were eligible. That focus made for an open-ended world when it came to services and, therefore, to cost. As state systems evolved, there was no clear definition of what represented a legitimate disability and what services ought to be provided for it. Whether or not a child needed a wheelchair or hearing aid might be pretty straightforward, but what constituted a learning disability, for example, and what services ought to be provided in light of that disability, became one of the murkier and more contentious issues of the day.

And this is why a shift in focus away from access as an end in itself, to educational outcomes has the potential to define both special ed services and costs much more clearly. If we want to get Kid A to Point B, what will it take to do that?

One of the more tireless advocates for this shift in the design and evaluation of programs has been Lawrence C. Gloeckler, a deputy commissioner in the New York State Department of Education. Gloeckler says that when increasing access is the goal of special education, then that's exactly what a system will exist to do--with the attendant increase in costs. If, on the other hand, the goals shift to outcomes, a whole array of new avenues open up for serving students short of shunting them into special ed.

Fortunately, that is a message that the feds seem finally to be getting, no doubt partly inspired by the Government Performance and Results Act. The U.S. Office of Special Education Services has come up with a set of performance measures for state programs that will swing the emphasis toward results.

The two new trends taken together--a continuing increase in federal funding and a shift to outcome-based program assessment--could lead to significant and positive change in the country's whole approach to special education. A federal-state-local partnership that is no longer focused on squabbling over rules and resources can begin at long last to make good on the one promise that really matters: the promise to bring all children closer to the achievement of their potential.