Wednesday, May 11, 2016

How to Implement IDEA: IEP and its Limits

by B. Lana Guggenheim, Staff Writer

All students are individuals and require individual attention, but some students are in need of special aid due to disability, autism, or other non-normative factors that hamper their ability to learn at the same rate or pedagogic style as the majority of their peers. For them, the US Department of Education has IDEA: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This legislation provides resources and tools to help children with one or more of 13 listed disabilities, including learning disabilities. While not every child with learning or attention issues will qualify for aid covered by IDEA, there are many options for those who do. One of those options is the IEP, or Individualized Education Program.

IEP is not the only education aid program; it bears some similarity to the 504 plan, including the government bearing the cost of any programs or services offered to aid the child in attaining educational goals. However, the IEP is much more specialized, as well as more difficult to obtain. A child declined for an IEP might yet be covered by 504 services, which tend to modify a regular education program in the general classroom, rather than arrange for a wide array of services outside of it or alongside it. Because the IEP is more highly specialized and encompassing, the law requires much more stringent documentation and implementation.

An IEP legally requires a written document, and the team involved to include not just the student’s parents, but a school psychologist or other specialist, a general teacher, a special education teacher, and a school district representative. The child’s abilities and progress need to be carefully monitored, and immediate benchmarks and long-term annual education goals need to be specified, thus allowing for progress to be measured and goals to be attained. Also, in order for an IEP to be implemented, the child needs to have both an in-school evaluation, and an official diagnosis by a specialist or medical professional. The law requires that meetings of the IEP team occur at least once a year to keep parents abreast of developments, but they usually occur more frequently, and can be called by parents at any time. Finally, a transition plan must kick in a minimum of one year before the child graduates high school and reaches an age of majority. This is when the child herself often is present at IEP meetings, and includes services and support to help the student transition from school to a successful adulthood and achieve post-education goals.

To compare, a 504 plan does not require all these individuals, nor even a written document. Furthermore, while a 504 committee includes parents, the law does not specify the individuals mandated to be on the committee, nor does the law even guarantee parent participation in these meetings, nor is the committee required to keep the parents abreast of developments, nor does it include transition plans as a matter of course. That is not to say that 504 plans are inherently inferior, but they are definitely less thorough, and are probably better suited for students with less severe difficulties or borderline cases.

What happens if things go wrong? The IEP has specific legal processes to resolve disputes. A parent can ask for mediation, and in cases where this does not resolve disagreements, can file a due process complaint. This requires a parent writing an official complaint letter, after which there is a resolution session. If this fails to resolve the issues, a formal due process hearing is held in front of a hearing officer or administrative judge. After this, the parent can file a civil lawsuit. Any agreements reached in any stage of this process are required to be documented in writing. Similar options are available for disagreements arising with the 504 plan, but the steps are not as formalized as they are with the IEP.

The IEP is clearly one of the more intensive options of the few that exist to aid struggling or disabled students. Because it is so comprehensive and requires cooperation between so many people, implementation can easily become difficult. Especially in underprivileged and underserved school districts, teachers are often overwhelmed and don’t receive the support they need to properly execute their general duties, never mind the extra effort it takes to help a struggling student. In addition, both IEP and the 504 plan are aimed at students in public schools. Students in private or charter schools are less able to access these resources to aid children, putting yet more pressure on already strained families, students, and teachers.  But lack of funding and overcrowded schools are well known problems in public schools all over the nation, and as a result students are often underserved and teachers are over-stressed, but those struggling students in need suffer the most.

In fact, disparities in school funding both between school districts and within a district are well recorded. Moreover, in 23 states there are noticeable gaps in funding allocated to rich districts versus poor ones. Children living in poverty arrive in school already disadvantaged, and need more resources just to get on an even footing; instead, they are held further back, and as a result, children in poverty lag behind their wealthier peers across the nation. Studies in New York and Texas show large disparities both within and between specific school districts, which further exacerbate the gap between the rich and the poor. In New York City, the gap could be as high as $400 per student, in favor of the wealthy. And poverty exposes children to many factors that cause developmental delays. A home with lead paint, common in older buildings, might lead to permanent mental disability. Children in low-income homes often lack access to books, adequate healthcare, and their overworked parents lack time with their children, which is a crucial factor for emotional and mental development. This also means that problems will be spotted later, when they are more difficult to address. Already disadvantaged, these children arrive to schools that are more ill-equipped than they ought to be to adequately address their needs.

Programs like IEP are meant to aid these students, but these underserved schools and over-extended teachers all but guarantee that they will not receive the help they need to succeed in comparison to their middle- and upper-class peers. The IDEA legislation and IEP program are crucial steps needed to make sure that students with special needs can flourish to the full extent of their potential, and in the case of students from impoverished backgrounds, break the cycle of poverty and disability. But that can’t happen unless teachers and their schools get the support they need.

Works Cited
Brown, Emma. "In 23 States, Richer School Districts Get More Local Funding than Poorer Districts." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 12 Mar. 2015. Web. 11 May 2016.
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"Guide to the Individualized Education Program." US Department of Education. US Department of Education, 3 Mar. 2007. Web. 11 May 2016.
Guin, Kacey, Bethany Gross, Scott Deburgomaster, and Margeurite Roza. "Do Districts Fund Schools Fairly?" Education Next. Education Next, 17 Aug. 2007. Web. 11 May 2016.
Lee, Andrew M.I. "How IDEA Protects You and Your Child.", 11 Apr. 2014. Web. 11 May 2016.
Lovett, Kenneth. "EXCLUSIVE: Rich, Poor School Funding Disparity Hits Record." NY Daily News. NY Daily News, 11 Jan. 2015. Web. 11 May 2016.
Schwartz, Amy Ellen, Ross Rubinstein, and Leanna Stiefel. "Why Do Some Schools Get More and Others Less? An Examination of School-Level Funding in New York City." Diss. Institute for Education and Social Policy Wagner and Steinhardt Schools New York U, 2007. Steinhardt NYU, 2007. Web. 11 May 2016.
Stanberry, Kristin. "Understanding 504 Plans.", 03 June 2014. Web. 11 May 2016.
Stanberry, Kristin. "Understanding Individualized Education Programs.", 23 Oct. 2014. Web. 11 May 2016.
Valles, Rebecca, and Shawn Fremstad. "Disability Is a Cause and Consequence of Poverty - Talk Poverty." Talk Poverty., 19 Sept. 2014. Web. 11 May 2016.
Zorgian, Kris, and Jennifer Job. "Poverty and Special Ed." Learn NC. UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education (UNC-CH SOE), 2010. Web. 11 May 2016.


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