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Overturning Rowley, the Kryptonite of special education

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With the release of “Waiting for Superman,” a documentary film that attempts to give answers to a very complex problem, everyone is talking about education and what we, as a nation, need to do to raise the standards so that our children can compete in the 21st century. But these discussions leave out a very important demographic of children and the education problem they face.

For all the talk about raising national standards for education, we keep forgetting that there are more than 6.5 million kids with disabilities who receive services based on a federal law, known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This law entitles all students with disabilities to receive a free appropriate public education — which means an individualized education program designed to meet the student’s needs.

The problem lies in the case of Board of Education v. Rowley — which the United States Supreme Court passed in 1982. In Rowley, it was determined that the Act only guarantees a “basic floor of opportunity,” meaning that public schools only need to provide disabled students with an education that allows them to make “some progress.”

The individualized program need not be the best one, nor one that will maximize the child’s educational potential corresponding with the opportunity offered to non-disabled students — rather, it need only be a program that the child will somehow benefit from.

What this means, in practice, is that all this talk about excellence in education does not apply to disabled students.

Every parent knows that a fourth-grade reading level will not translate into academic success at the college level. But when parents of disabled students question the education their children receive in public schools, the schools usually cite Rowley.

“We don’t have to give you the best education — your child only has to make ‘some progress,’ ” is a familiar refrain to any parent of a disabled child who seeks to address a lack of significant progress — whether in reading, writing, math, critical thinking, or life skills.

And advocates and attorneys who work in the trenches have seen the impact of this low standard. We have seen schools — even in high wealth areas — graduating students who cannot adequately read, write or do basic math calculations. We have seen schools place many students on a non-diploma “individual­ized education program track” that, too often, does not give children the useful instruction they need to lead productive and independent lives.

We have also seen the passageway between schools and the criminal justice system grow so large that it is almost as if there is a pipeline to juvenile detention, as schools increasingly use the courts to circumvent their responsibility to identify and provide an education to students with disabilities.

It is time we did better for all children. We need to discover strengths in every child and nurture them, even if it means redesigning the curriculum to accommodate the unique abilities and talents of each and every child. We need to teach all children how to think, question, and be creative to the best of their abilities.

We, as a country, need to ensure that all children are entitled to excellence in their education. It is time for Congress to amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and say “goodbye” to Rowley. Equal opportunity is a bedrock principle in the United States. Upon this principle rests the hopes and dreams of all of our children.

While the average child in this country is “Waiting for Superman” to save her education, we must remember that more than 6.5 million students with disabilities are also waiting for us to do something. Unless we change the standard — now — our children will still be left in the basement while we talk about educational excellence for everyone else.

Marilyn Scattoreggio has been an education advocate for more than 20 years. She works as the supervisor of education advocacy at the Long Island Advocacy Center, Inc., in Suffolk County. This essay is her personal opinion and not that of her employer.

Updated 4:29 pm, July 9, 2018
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