How Maryland Legislators Can Fix a Problem One Mother Found With Special Education

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I recently wrote a post about Katherine Spurlock, a former public school teacher who moved to Montgomery County, Md., from a tiny school district in New York and discovered shocking about special education. 

Spurlock wanted to make sure that her daughter, who has dyslexia, received appropriate interventions and placement in school but learned that Montgomery County — nor any other county in Maryland and perhaps across the United States — did not compile  data about how much money was being spent on early academic or behavioral interventions for students who need them.

Why does this matter? As I wrote in the earlier post, research shows that early interventions — from kindergarten through third grade — can help alleviate learning disabilities and improve student outcomes. The Maryland Special Education Census Data 2014-2015 showed that a large number of students in special education receive referrals after the K-3 period has passed — and that data suggests that by the time students with learning disabilities are referred for special-education services, wide achievement gaps already exist. But there isn’t a systematic way for a state to know who is doing what with specialized interventions for young children — even though federal law says schools must have intervention programs.
[How one mother discovered a problem with special education and got legislators to help try to fix it]

Spurlock persuaded some Maryland state legislators to introduce legislation requiring boards of education to annually report data on specialized intervention services to the State Department of Education and the General Assembly. Here’s a piece she wrote about where that legislation is headed and why it matters so much.

By Katherine Spurlock

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is important for students with disabilities.  It holds substantial promise for students in need of early intervention.

About half the students in special education have severe disabilities such as blindness, deafness, Down Syndrome, mental retardation, and other disabilities evident at birth or early in development. When these students receive effective intervention, their outcomes are better, but it wasn’t a lack of early intervention that created the disability they live with.

For about half the students in the United States served by special education, the situation is murkier.  They have mild or late appearing disabilities — often affecting learning and attention — that schools identify in later elementary school or even in middle or high school.  Part nature and part nurture, these learning problems can be curbed through early intervention.

But this means stark disparities exist between the children of the haves—who can better get intervention both inside and outside the schools—and the have nots.  Further, it’s not fanciful to say that a lack of effective early intervention creates many of the learning, attention, and emotional disabilities we see down the road.

Starting with the reauthorization of IDEA in 2004, federal law took the view that schools are accountable for disparities by mandating that schools have early-intervention programs in order to avoid racial disproportionality in special education, evident when more poor children are consigned to the special education classroom rather than the general education classroom.

IDEA 2004 made clear that it wasn’t only racism and cultural bias that were to blame for the over-representation of minorities in more restrictive learning environments, but the lack of effective early intervention.  Schools with significant over-representation were required to re-direct federal funding that supports special education to prevention in the form of early intervention programs focusing primarily on kindergarten through third grade.

But IDEA, while mandating early intervention, does not demand the data reporting that would provide real accountability.  This is a real problem, because sanctioning schools for over-representation creates a perverse incentive for schools to delay referring children of color for special education services.  The law designed to promote early intervention can in some cases have the opposite impact. If minority students are not significantly over-represented in schools in categories like learning disabilities because they have received quality intervention that’s a good thing.  But if the needs of minority children are more likely to be ignored, that is not a good thing at all.

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