WASHINGTON – Without the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Robyn Traywick doubts that her 12-year-old son with Down syndrome would be reading at a fifth-grade level.
“Four years ago, my son wouldn’t have been able to have an education, except maybe in the basement of a school,” the Olney mother told a congressional panel Wednesday.
But Traywick and Ricki Sabia, a fellow Montgomery County mom of a disabled son, also told the new Congressional Disabilities Caucus that while they are grateful for IDEA, many improvements are needed, including increased federal funding and greater accountability of schools.
Passed in 1995, IDEA expanded the 1975 Education for All Children Act, which made the states responsible for the education of children with disabilities. The 1995 revision called on the federal government to help fund special education, required that each child have an individualized education program and clarified language on disciplining those children, among other changes.
But while IDEA’s goal was to fund up to 40 percent of a state’s excess costs of educating children with disabilities, current federal funding is only 16.5 percent of that cost, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Montgomery County only got $806 in federal funding per disabled student and $1,129 from the state in 2001, leaving county taxpayers to pick up the rest of the $20,247 it costs to educate a child with disabilities, said Bobbi Jasper, director of special education for the county’s schools. The average per-pupil cost in the county is $8,803.
“We know Congress can improve our pubic schools by strengthening its support for local school districts in educating the nation’s children who have disabilities,” Jasper said. “Please fully fund the 40 percent federal share of IDEA so that more local funds would be available to support education services for all students.”
One of the main goals of the newly formed Congressional Disabilities Caucus is to increase federal IDEA funding to the full 40 percent when the act comes up for reauthorization this year.
“The IDEA is the landmark civil rights law that opens the door to success to more than 6 million children each year,” said Rep. Connie Morella, R- Bethesda, a co-chair of the caucus.
“We still need to make the system better. We need to take what we’ve learned and improve the process,” Morella said.
While three-quarters of children with disabilities are currently learning in classrooms along with their non-disabled peers, Traywick and Sabia said more needs to be done.
Traywick urged Congress to require accountability for IDEA beyond statistical measures, saying test scores alone are not reliable indicators of the effectiveness of special education programs.
“Look at the schools. Go to the classrooms. That is the only way you leave no child behind,” Traywick said.
Sabia, co-chair of the Continuous Improvement Team for Montgomery County Public Schools, said her team goes to schools and observes a child’s education, then makes recommendations for improvement.
She said the goal is to ensure disabled children get the same education that all children receive. But accountability is lacking, she said. Disabled children in regular education programs often have principals who are not educated in special education, she said. She urged more funding for staff training.
Jasper also urged the caucus to press for more funding. She said medical advances have let more children live with disabilities who once would not have survived past infancy. Now these children need an education, she said.
Sabia, whose 9-year-old son has Down syndrome, said that IDEA has been an important first step that needs to be built on.
“There will be more opportunities for kids in the future. People will be amazed at what our kids can achieve,” said Sabia. “They already have achieved what was not expected.”