Commentary

Prediction: IDEA Will Continue Down the Wrong Path

By David F. Salisbury
May 22, 2002

Peter, age 12, is visually impaired. His parents wanted him to attend the Texas School for the blind in Austin, Texas, but school officials at Peter’s local public school wouldn’t let him. They felt they knew better than Peter’s mother and father what was best for him.

To most people, it seems rather patronizing for public school administrators to presume to make such a decision for Peter’s parents. Unfortunately, current federal policy places government-not parents-in the primary decision-making role when it comes to children with disabilities.

Since 1975, a law known as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) mandates that public schools create Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) for children with disabilities. That may sound good, but the process for setting up an IEP is too often stacked against the parents. The process involves lengthy meetings with school officials, counselors and teachers. Disagreements over the IEP often have to be resolved in court. Consequently, only the more affluent parents-those who can afford attorneys-are able to navigate the process successfully. The children of other parents often receive little benefit from being in “special ed.”

Congress has an opportunity this year to turn this situation around and put parents-rather than school officials and attorneys-in control of the process. How? By replacing the contentious IEP process with pure parental choice. To do this, Congress would have to amend IDEA and allow states to adopt instead a parental choice model. In those states, parents of a special needs child could place their child in any school, public or private. The cost would be limited to what the public school normally pays for a child with a similar disability. The parents can use the local public school if they want. But they would always have the option of selecting another public or private school. Such a policy would be a tremendous victory for parents of disabled children, who now are stuck with whatever local education officials decide to provide.

As recently as this month, the Presidential Commission on Special Education heard testimony about giving parents of children with disabilities a choice over where to send their children to school. In Florida, parents of children with disabilities can place their child in their local public school, or, if dissatisfied for any reason, they can send him to a private or parochial school of their choice. No second-guessing by school authorities, no requesting permission, no lawsuits.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Members of the House Subcommittee on Education Reform seem intent on making only minor changes to a program that treats children as pawns in a tug-of-war between parents, attorneys and school officials. The most dramatic reforms being considered will not mend the deepest, most festering sores created by IDEA’s current policies.

Parents who want a disabled child to succeed should have the right to choose what they believe is their child’s best option. Because public schools are government bureaucracies, they are slow to adopt rapidly evolving techniques and technologies in special education. Children with disabilities have individualized, specialized needs. So, allowing parents to shop around for the best option makes sense. Choice for parents is the best way to serve the diverse needs of children with disabilities.

The cumbersome processes associated with IDEA impose enormous costs on school districts, requiring them to spend funds on IEP meetings, record keeping, administrative reviews, and settlement costs for parents that sue. According to the American Institutes for Research, school districts spend about $4 billion a year on central office special education administration. That money could be better spent on special education children.

The wisdom of ending IDEA-a bureaucratic, process-obsessed, inflexible program-and replacing it with parental choice should be obvious. We can only hope that Congress will move IDEA out of the Stone Age and embrace choice and new options for parents sometime in the future. Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long.

David Salisbury is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.