WASHINGTON—Our nation has made great strides in educating students with disabilities in the 35 years since enactment of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but we're not at the finish line yet.
Students who were traditionally segregated in residential or self-contained settings are now included in a variety of classrooms and educational settings. The number of students with disabilities progressing through high school programs has increased more than 35 percent. Colleges and universities are creating post-secondary opportunities for students with a range of disabilities, including intellectual disabilities.
Even as we celebrate this progress, we recognize that we must do better. We need to improve pre-service and in-service training for teachers and paraprofessionals, protect educators who speak up when students don't receive services required under IDEA, and fund rigorous research to determine what programs are truly effective in educating special needs students. Also, underfunding continues to plague efforts to serve these students. Thirty-five years ago, lawmakers recommended that the federal government fund up to 40 percent of the total costs, but even with the recent infusion of stimulus funds, the federal commitment has been barely half that. Budget cuts, personnel shortages, and ill-conceived education policies have hit the special education community harder than most. All these come at a time when the needs of students with disabilities are as acute as ever. For example, the numbers of children and youth on the autism spectrum are growing at an alarming rate and are stretching limited resources in our nation's public schools.
The late Congressman Hubert H. Humphrey, a tireless advocate for people with disabilities and a longtime AFT member, once said, "The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped." Creating IDEA 35 years ago was a wise and compassionate action, but today we have a moral obligation to do even more to help the most vulnerable members of our society.