Why the IEP process is unfair
Suzanne Shaft

Why the IEP Process Isn’t Fair to Anyone

Why the IEP process is unfair
Suzanne Shaft

Why the IEP Process Isn’t Fair to Anyone

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At the end of every IEP meeting lately, I find myself asking why this process has to be so difficult. After all, we are supposed to be a team. I just want what my child needs. Arguably, so does the school district. So, why are we constantly at odds?

What is the origin of the IEP process?

It all goes back to the law that allows children with disabilities to be educated appropriately. The most recent iteration of this law is IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) 2004. But, its origins go back to a law from 1975 in which Congress promised to provide 40% of the average cost to educate a child with a disability. That sounds reasonable.  Until you find out that the law was later amended to say that the federal government would pay a “maximum” of 40% of per-student costs for a child with a disability, that sounds a little less great.

Is the data that supports the IEP process outdated?

According to a report from the National Council on Disability (NCD) dated February 7, 2018, the last comprehensive study on the cost of special education was in 2003. That was 18 years ago. In theory, IDEA was supposed to be reauthorized by Congress every 5 years. However, the political landscape has made this issue controversial, even though IDEA funding is largely a bipartisan issue. The last time IDEA was amended was in December 2015 with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA amended two things: the “highly qualified” teacher requirements and the Essential Components of Reading Instruction changes. While I won’t get into the specifics of that, I will say that ESSA did not address many of IDEA’s main concerns.

Why is the funding structure unsustainable?

There are about 7 million special education students in America. Yet, funding special education largely falls on state and local education agencies. Most of America funds its schools using local and property taxes. This is why you see so many school levies on the voting ballot. If a school levy fails, it usually means big budget cuts in your local district. According to the NCD report, public investment in K-12 schools has declined dramatically in the past decade. This causes districts to have to scale back on educational services.  It also forces them to raise more local funds to cover the gap.

The impact is that we don’t know if local districts have to dip into their general education budgets to maintain the level of services they provide.  We don’t know if special education services are being reduced to fit what funding is available. Taxpayers are not an unlimited source of funding. When school levies fail, it’s not necessarily because the people in that district don’t care about education. It could very well be that the population doesn’t have any more tax money to contribute to the cause of education. Federal funding is supposed to fill that gap.

Historically underfunded = underserved children

During the decades that we have had a law to address the right of children with disabilities to access a “free and appropriate public education,” the law has never been fully funded. The 2018 report by the NCD states that the federal government is paying less than half of what it promised to provide in that 1975 law. In 2018, IDEA was only federally funded at 17%, a big difference from 40%. The real-world impact of this means that there have been delays in evaluations for disabled students.  There have also been more rejections of IEE (Independent Educational Evaluations) requests.  Furthermore, the lack of funding has caused inappropriate changes in placements and services for students with disabilities.  All this has led to the failure of schools to implement IEPs properly. This is a big problem.

What does a fair IEP even cost?

An even bigger problem is that we have no way to determine how much federal funding is required by state and local districts in order to educate a child with disabilities appropriately. The 1975 law assumed that it would cost twice as much to educate a student with disabilities. But is this true? From the NCD’s 2018 report, we know that it costs more to educate children with disabilities. The report also showed how the category of disability matters in terms of how much it will cost to educate that student. Expenses for students with specific learning disabilities are about 1.6 times higher than for general education students.

If the student has multiple disabilities, that number rises to 3.1 times higher. If the child is Autistic, it costs about 2.9 times more to educate that child. In the last 15 years, there has been a decline in the number of students in the specific learning disabilities category.  This decline is coupled with a sharp rise in the number of students in the Autism category. Between 1999 and 2014, the overall special education population only increased by about 4.5%. However, these increases come in categories like Autism, which costs more to educate appropriately. Therefore, it may be true that federal funding to educate disabled students might very well need to be higher than the 40% promised in 1975. Since we have never received full funding on that 40%, what hope can we fund IDEA at a higher level?

How does federal funding affect the IEP?

There are no easy answers to these problems. However, lack of federal funding matters. Taxpayers are not ATMs. We do not have unlimited amounts of money to spend on school levy after school levy. The way schools are funded is unfair to disabled children who live in non-wealthy districts. In my home state of Ohio, the state’s school funding system has been declared unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court 4 times!

Yet, nothing has changed. The last effort to fix the way schools are funded here died in the Finance Committee in December 2020. It would have changed the state’s over-reliance on property taxes to fund schools.  It also would have switched to a model that gave more accurate projections on how much local communities could afford to contribute to education. This would have created a formula identifying specific costs for educating students with different disabilities.  This would have lead to a more equitable funding system as prescribed by the Ohio Supreme Court. But the bill could not pass by the end of 2020, so it was shelved. Its only hope is to be reintroduced at some point.

Are schools to blame for an unfair IEP process?

If you’ve ever been told in an IEP meeting that they couldn’t afford to provide a specific accommodation or type of specially designed instruction for your child, there’s probably some truth to that statement. IDEA does not allow the school to use that as an excuse not to provide the service.  However, IDEA has never lived up to its promises to the schools. The IEP system will not be fair to the parents until this changes.  The schools or the disabled student it is supposed to serve.

Why I want you to be aware of this topic?

Knowledge is power when it comes to knowing the structure and motivations behind the current IEP.  Know that you have all the rights to find an adequate IEP that supports all your children’s needs.   I am very passionate about this topic and want to help parents at the beginning or struggling on this special education path.   Please join my Plan A-Z IEP and School advocacy group for information and guidance on IEPs, IDEA, and school advocacy.  If you have a pressing problem with your child’s IEP or a school issue and need some focussed time, directly reach out to me!  I would love to help.

About the Author

Suzanne is a mom of children with Autism and other special needs and has been caring and advocating for them for over 17 years. She is passionate about helping parents navigate all aspects of special needs parenting including therapy, advocacy and education. Her expert storefront is called Plan A-Z

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