GUVERCIN: Special education in need of vital reform


Column: The Bigger Picture

Special education is one of the most vital foundations of an equal-opportunity, universal and conscientious education system. 

It is a comprehensive and individualized outlet through which disadvantaged children are able to receive accommodations and advocacies in terms of their academic progress. Through an extensive evaluation process, students are determined eligible for extra services and supports based on a wide variety of needs. These needs and services can range from a child with dyslexia requiring additional academic support and tutoring, to a child with a hearing impairment needing classroom and instruction accommodations. 

Special education has been found to be so critical to school systems that there is even a federal law that mandates and regulates it, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law requires public schools to provide special education services to students who are deemed eligible. It entails the student to have a documented disability that is covered by the IDEA in order to access the general education curriculum. 

The law also mandates that schools provide these services in what is called the “least restrictive environment,” which means that special education students spend as much time in traditional classrooms with the general population as possible. 

This all sounds good, and the system we currently have in place is theoretically effective, but unfortunately, many school systems are not utilizing this outlet to the extent that it was made for or is warranted. There are several articles on school systems that are failing their special needs students, and the issue is particularly pronounced in the state of Texas.

There is no region in Texas that has enough licensed specialists that are able to perform evaluations necessary to determine a child’s eligibility for special education, according to the Houston Public Media. In fact, statewide, there is only one licensed school psychologist for approximately 2,800 students, when there should be one for approximately 500 to 700 students according to national guidelines. 

Furthermore, in 2004, Texas state officials had arbitrarily decided that 8.5% of students should receive special education, which they enforced by auditing schools that were serving too many kids. The law, which has been swept under the rug without public knowledge, saved the Texas Education Agency billions of dollars, but to this day impacts the ability of students with disabilities to receive an equal-opportunity education. 

While there have been great strides in the American education system in terms of special education services, in July 2017, the U.S. Department of Education reported that fewer than half of the states are meeting their obligations under the IDEA. 

It has been shown that schools significantly overestimate their success in fundamental components of special education, primarily in terms of disability determination being a key element of the IDEA, parent and student rights being protected under the IDEA, enforcement of the “least restrictive environment” clause and students receiving related services when the Individualized Education Program (IEP) requires them. 

It is evident that there is a significant gap between the theoretical model of the special education system and its actual implementation in school systems, which is a monumental problem that must be addressed on both federal and local levels.

This semester, I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand just how important special education is to students and families through the Rutgers Behavioral Assistant Program. I work directly with students who have disabilities that have qualified them for the special education programs in their schools, and have seen how invaluable the services and resources are in terms of the student’s academic and personal development. 

Without appropriate classroom accommodations, counseled, specialized and trained teachers and a comprehensive individual evaluation and progress plan, which the students I work with are fortunate enough to have, I knew that many students would be completely robbed of an education and an opportunity for a fulfilling life. 

To think that there are thousands of students out there who are in need of such services and resources yet are unable to receive them is a harrowing concept that further justifies a significant change in school systems in terms of their accessibility programs. As Rutgers students, we can be more active in local legislation, activism and school systems in order to promote equal opportunity for students with disabilities. 

At the very least, we can be aware of the value of such services and show our unwavering support for legislative actions that seek to enforce the laws and models of the comprehensive special education system in schools. 

Dilara Guvercin is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in psychology and minoring in philosophy. Her column, "The Bigger Picture," typically runs on alternate Fridays. 

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