Many years ago, I began my career as a special education teacher at McManus Junior High School (now McManus Middle School) in the city of Linden. I am happy to report that over the years, I have seen many improvements in how special needs children are educated. This issue of School Leader includes a section on special education, which begins on page 15, and it has prompted me to think about what has changed in the field — and what hasn’t.
A milestone in special education was the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), signed in 1975 by President Gerald Ford. The law specified that schools must identify students with disabilities, provide them with a free and appropriate education, and adhere to a process that protects their rights. That law guaranteed an education to students who previously were often overlooked and underserved. Unfortunately, the IDEA funding that was promised by the federal government has never been fully delivered. The law indicated the federal government would pay 40 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure for special education, but it has been chronically underfunded. In New Jersey, for example, we get about 15 or 16 percent of the per-pupil funding.
Still, advances for special education students have been considerable. The process of identifying students who need extra help and diagnosing their problems has become more precise, and the educational strategies, methods and equipment available today — including various types of assistive technology — provide more useful and individualized support for students.
The emphasis on inclusion of special education students in general education classrooms has helped both special ed and general ed students. A national survey showed that 62 percent of students with disabilities were in general education classrooms for 80 percent or more of the day, while only 5 percent were educated completely in separate settings. Of course, some students, including those who are medically fragile, need out-of-district placement. But more special education children are attending their local schools with friends, neighbors and siblings. This is better for the students, for their families, for the general education students, and yes, for the taxpayers.
Even the terminology used to describe special education students has changed, thank heavens. It has become both more sensitive, less stigmatizing and more accurate.
But many things have not changed in special education — nor should they. One is the individual attention that children need from dedicated educators, and the importance of making sure that every child feels valued. Maintaining good communication with families is more important than ever. And there will always be a need for a board of education to be committed to a top-quality special education program, administered by a superintendent, administrators and teachers who place the needs of special education students at the center of their decision-making.
In return, education leaders experience the timeless reward of working in this unique field: the overwhelming sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing that you helped special needs children to reach their full potential.