- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Ask lawyer Pete Wright about how America is doing in its education of children with disabilities and he is unabashedly upbeat. “We have made tremendous headway,” he says, recalling that in the 1950s his parents were told by school officials that he was borderline mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed and not likely to do well in school.

It’s true “I had behavior problems,” Mr. Wright, a nationally known legal analyst who in 1993 won a U.S. Supreme Court special-education case, says wryly. “But using today’s labels, what they were describing were attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia.”

Wiser diagnoses are just part of the sea change that occurred in 1975, when Congress enacted a law saying that children with disabilities were entitled to free, appropriate and beneficial education — including transportation — at public schools.

Today, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, some 6.5 million children are involved in public special education, with nearly 96 percent served in regular school buildings, says a September report by the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS).

Around $50 billion a year is spent on special education, and the 56 percent graduation rate is the “highest rate ever,” says Robert Pasternack, assistant secretary for OSERS.

Many parents seem to be satisfied with the system, he said, citing a General Accounting Office (GAO) report issued in September that found that the number of formal disputes between parents of special-needs children and school officials were “generally low.” Over a five-year period, about five due-process hearings were held per 10,000 special-needs students, the GAO found.

“However, much remains to be done,” Mr. Pasternack said. Top reforms include simplifying the system, recruiting and retaining more educators, and building stronger alliances between parents and professionals.

Still, achieving the law’s guarantee — that each child will have the most appropriate education in the least restrictive setting — can be elusive.

For instance, Army Col. Jerry E. Sullivan and his wife, Sharon, who live in Northern Virginia, say they have had positive public school experiences with their two eldest children, who are doing well despite some learning disabilities.

But they have become frustrated with the education provided for their 9-year-old son, Danny, who has Down syndrome.

“Especially lately, the school system views my son as a round peg that they’re trying to fit into a square hole. And despite our pleadings that he’s round and not square, they continue to keep pounding away. And he’s the one who’s suffering in the process,” Col. Sullivan said.

Danny used to be delighted to go to school but now he dislikes it, Mrs. Sullivan said. In the mornings, he puts his hands together, as if praying, and begs, “No, no. No school. No school,” she said, adding that she and her husband have tried for more than a year to get school officials to find a more appropriate classroom for Danny.

Parents are not the only frustrated adults in the system. About 60 percent of special-education teachers rated their “work-related stress” between a 7 and 9 on a scale of 1 to 10, the Council for Exceptional Children, a trade group for special educators, said in a survey a few years ago.

Excessive paperwork was named as the biggest problem, followed by “lack of time” to do a good job, “attitude” problems in others and “student behavior,” the council said.

Mr. Wright, with wife, Pam, created “Wrightslaw” legal books and training seminars precisely to help parents and professionals navigate the ever-expanding world of special education. The latest book, due out soon, examines the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

One of their books, “From Emotions to Advocacy,” was written to help parents understand special education laws and learn negotiating skills, so they can “get the person on the other side of the table to want to give you what your child needs without setting up World War III,” says Mr. Wright.

In the end, he says, parents of today still have to do what his parents did in the 1950s: be proactive about getting private evaluations and even services for their children.

Mr. Wright’s parents did both, and although Mr. Wright continued to struggle in school, he earned psychology and law degrees and went on to win a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court case that forced a school district to reimburse a family for costs of sending their special-needs daughter to a private school.

Meanwhile, some parents, like Tom and Sherry Bushnell of Porthill, Idaho, prefer to teach their special-needs children at home.

School-required education plans are only “the bare bones” of what the children need to grow, say the Bushnells, who are home-schooling four children with special needs in addition to running the National Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network, which has 14,300 families.

Home schooling allows constant character education and one-on-one attention — special-needs children can learn at their own pace, with as much repetition as needed, they say. Children also avoid long bus rides, being “baby-sat” in class and being “labeled” by others.

Home schooling “is the ultimate in inclusion,” says one parent in the newly published book “Christian Homes and Special Kids,” written by Mrs. Bushnell and Diane Ryckman.

Most of the nation’s 1.9 million home-schooling parents — around 85 percent — “don’t want federal or state aid for teaching their children at home,” and this includes families with children with special needs, says Chris Klicka, senior counsel of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSDLA).

Still, state laws on home schooling disabled children vary, and home-schooling parents are well-advised to expect interaction with state and school officials about their special-needs children, the HSLDA says.

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