Special Kids, Special Parents, Special Education

Many parents are raising children whose mental, physical, cognitive, emotional, or developmental issues diminish their capacity to be educated in the same ways as other children. Over six million of these children receive special education services under mandates of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, called the IDEA. Once largely excluded from public education, these children are now entitled to a “free appropriate public education,” or FAPE. This Article argues that the promise of the IDEA cannot be realized unless more attention is paid to the child’s parents. Under the IDEA, as in life, the intermediary between the child and the educational system is the child’s parent. The law appears to empower parents to participate in the planning, execution, and revision of the child’s individual educational plan. The experience of parents, however, is often not empowering, to the detriment of both child and parent. Instead, many parents confront school systems that fail to support parental competence or help parents conserve their resources. This Article proposes three significant reforms to the special education system that better serve the needs of parents while improving the chances that children in need of special education will receive it. The three reforms are: (1) requiring schools to help parents be in touch with each other; (2) requiring school systems to commit to common special educational plans through a public process; and (3) adopting universal design pedagogies in general education when practicable. Although the most expensive of the three proposals is the preference for universal design pedagogies, the most controversial is requiring school systems to commit to common special educational plans for similarly-situated children. If the proposal were adopted, every child with the same problem would be provided with the same educational plan. The individualized plan now mandated would be provided only where a child’s situation is an uncommon one. None of the proposed reforms is cost-free. I conclude by demonstrating that the costs of parent-oriented reforms are justified in order to comply with congressional expectations, for reasons of pragmatism, and to advance social justice for parents with special needs children as compared with other parents and with each other.