Civil Rights Commission Hears from Advocates and Experts

(WASHINGTON, DC) Inadequate teacher training, insufficient resources, lack of vocational training programs, noncompliance, and overrepresentation of students of color are among the challenges to the effectiveness of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, according to panelists at a recent briefing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

"The Commission has a mandate to study and offer recommendations on the full range of federal civil rights laws," stated Chairperson Mary Frances Berry. "The IDEA impacts millions of families across the country and Commissioners are interested to learn how these families are faring."

The briefing was held as Congress considers reauthorization of the sweeping education and civil rights legislation. The panel of advocates, policy experts and educators discussed some of the challenges faced by parents, students and educators in fulfilling IDEA's promise.

Special education teacher Jeritza Montgomery described problems teachers face in trying to educate students who are sometimes difficult to manage while navigating a sea of compliance-related paperwork, individual education plans and parents who cannot advocate on behalf of their children. "A lot of things should be done, but can't be done in a timely fashion because of paperwork," she explained.

Among the civil rights issues discussed by Martin Gould of the National Council on Disability and Donald Oswald of Virginia Commonwealth University were enforcement and overrepresentation of students from minority communities. "Eighty percent of the states fail to ensure compliance with the law's requirements," according to Mr. Gould, whose organization released an evaluation of nearly two and a half decades of federal enforcement of IDEA, Back to School on Civil Rights. He concluded that the key to successful IDEA enforcement is implementation of existing civil rights laws.

Professor Oswald found "African American students appear to be at the greatest risk for over representation in districts serving mostly middle class or wealthy white students" that could be the result of "a biased and discriminatory process." He called for continued data collection, focusing on outcomes and access, cultural competency training, and reviewing policy initiatives for unintended consequences.

In discussing disciplinary issues, Kathleen B. Boundy of the Center for Law and Education opposed likely proposals to weaken provisions that protect students whose behavioral problems arise from their disabilities. An advocate for special education students being educated in the general population, Ms. Boundy also opposes alternative schools that will "exacerbate re-segregation of public education by race, class and disability."

Parent-advocate Barbara Cheadle likened the IDEA to a "crazy quilt" that incorporates many diverse needs. She identified the lack of parent training to support their child's individual learning needs as among the most critical areas in need of attention.

Following the briefing, the Commission plans to continue reviewing the impact of IDEA legislation and offer its recommendations to Congress.