LAWRENCE — Many states are not meeting their goals to improve access to general education settings for students with disabilities as required by federal law, a new report co-authored by a University of Kansas professor shows. The 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Improvement Education Act, known as IDEA, requires states to enact a State Performance Plan on a number of factors, improving access for students with disabilities among them.
Jennifer Kurth, assistant professor of special education, co-authored an article that examined states in the Southwest United States and their compliance with indicator No. 5 of IDEA, which calls for the least restrictive environment possible for students with disabilities. While states developed plans to improve their environments, most did not yield results.
“We found that most plans made no difference whatsoever,” Kurth said. “That was discouraging because states invest so much in these plans.”
Kurth co-authored the study with Susan Marks and Jody Pirtle of Northern Arizona University. It appeared in the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disability’s Journal Inclusion. The researchers examined plans from five Southwestern states from 2005 to 2011. Indicator No. 5 has three placement categories: A, in which students with disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their school time in general education classes; B, in which they spend less than 40 percent of their time in the classes; and C, in which they are educated in separate schools, residential facilities or homebound and hospital placements.
While Colorado was the best at producing a nonrestrictive environment, California scored the lowest. The problem is not regional as national data shows that the majority of states don’t meet their goals, Kurth said. Research has long shown that when students with disabilities spend the majority of their time in special education classes, they don’t receive the best possible education and struggle to catch up with their peers.
“IDEA is very clear in having a preference for students with disabilities spend the majority of their time in general education,” Kurth said. “We know from about 40 years of research that the kind of segregation we’re still seeing doesn’t work.”
Kurth and colleagues also analyzed data provided by the states on which they based their decision making for student placement. The reasons for not achieving goals laid out in the State Performance Plans were wide ranging, from matters of setting a lofty goal and not working to meet it, to defeatist attitudes.
“A lot of times they were saying, ‘It’s just not possible for us to educate everyone in gen ed,’” Kurth said. “Others said, ‘We didn’t make it last year. We’re not going to make it next year.’”
A large part of the issue, the researchers say, is the lack of an incentive for states to reach their goals and no disincentives or penalties for those who don’t. IDEA has 20 indicators, some of which are “compliance indicators,” in which states have to meet certain standards or face penalties. Indicator No. 5 is not, something the researchers argue, should be changed. There is also not enough oversight, they said. Some school districts have had a tendency to place disproportionate numbers of minority students and English language learners in special education courses, making it more difficult to create a nonrestrictive environment for students.
Kurth compared the problem to regulations on water pollution. If a resident had to know about differing regulations in the city, county, state and neighboring states it would be difficult to know which to follow. Similarly, without uniform guidelines it is often difficult for school personnel to know how to best place students.
Kurth and two Department of Special Education colleagues, Elizabeth Kozleski and Mary Morningstar, plan to expand the research to study state plans to improve the number of their students in Category C, in which students with disabilities are educated in separate schools and facilities. Called The Tyranny of Low Expectations, the project will examine why, despite decades of knowledge that segregation is not beneficial for students, there continues to be about 2 to 3 percent of students that fall into category C.
In the meantime, to improve the environment for all students, Kurth and colleagues advocate both for grassroots movements to encourage schools to adopt less restrictive environments and for policy that would provide penalties for states and schools that fail to do so.
“If it really does matter, and most of us think it does, we think there should be some teeth behind indicator No. 5,” Kurth said. “Otherwise we’re just avoiding the problem.”