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Special Education: 45 Years Later

By: Raymond Damm, CEO ACCEL

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It is easy to take for granted the institutions that function in the background of our lives. Like many others who work in special education, I take pause to reflect on the 45th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA was a landmark civil rights measure designed to create equitable access to education for children with special needs. Before IDEA, students with physical and mental disabilities were regularly excluded from public schools.

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While most people are unfamiliar with IDEA, the concept is one we should celebrate —  a promise to children, families, school districts, and states that provides a brighter future for children with disabilities.

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But it’s a promise that hasn’t reached its full potential. At the time, Congress promised to pay 40 percent of the National Average per Pupil Expenditure. Today, this figure sits at about 13 percent. In fact, funding for IDEA has never surpassed 20 percent.

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IDEA was a significant step in the right direction. The year after the legislation became law, more than 3.5 million students were served; 45 years later that number now exceeds 7.5 million. However, with insufficient federal funding, the onus is placed on states and local school districts to fund special education.

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This makes it much more difficult to ensure what Congress intended to accomplish: “…bringing children with disabilities out of the shadows and into American schools where their gifts and strengths can be recognized.” With proper funding, states and local districts are empowered to help all students reach their fullest potential.  

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It is important to recognize that funding needs increase over time. Less than 1 percent of students being served under IDEA in 1999 had an autism diagnosis. In less than a decade, that figure increased to 9 percent. The Special Education Expense Project (SEEP) notes that it costs 3.9 times more to educate a student with autism than a general education student.

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And while progress has been made toward protecting the rights of students with disabilities, many challenges still exist. “Studies show that students with disabilities in low-income or racially diverse districts are far less likely to receive the specialized supports and services they need,” according to Danielle Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Private Special Education Centers (NAPSEC). “While progress has been made, we must remain committed to address the challenges that still exist, ensuring that all students have the supports they need to reach their full potential.”

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If the IDEA is to reach its full potential, it is necessary to understand the funding gap school districts continually face and then work towards fully funding that gap. Arizona must commit to investing in early childhood development and early identification of students who may have special needs in order for the IDEA to work.

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As a community, we recognize the need to give people the tools and resources they need to reach their maximum potential and we must ensure that those that we have elected hold these same principles and act on those convictions.

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About the Author:

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Raymond Damm is the CEO of ACCEL, a nonprofit organization that provides innovative, individualized and comprehensive educational, therapeutic, vocational, behavioral and life skills training for children and adults who have special needs. Damm has been working with ACCEL since March of 2016, starting as Chief Financial Officer and Chief Development Officer, and transitioning to the role of Chief Executive Officer in June of 2018. Ray earned his Bachelor’s degree from The University of Virginia – Wise and an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. Having held executive positions in both the public and private sectors, Ray is driven to apply private sector best practices to sustainably address issues the public sector is driven to solve. This is especially true for underserved groups of individuals and those whose voice isn’t heard. He is motivated by ACCEL’s 300+ students and 100+ adults that overcome incredible obstacles each and every day. Outside of work, Ray is happiest spending time with family, making and repairing watches, playing golf and being in the mountains or on the beach.

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