A National Strategy for the Provision of Special Education in the United States
I was working with children who had brain injuries, including learning disabilities, in the early 1970’s, when there was an active discussion of what model to use in the federal legislation that would require the provision of education to all students, including those with disabilities. There were two alternatives being discussed.
The first was the use of a model that today would be called “wrap around”. The idea was that local resources would collaborate to provide services to children that included traditional education, family support, vocational and social skills support, etc.
The second was the model that was implemented and was the focusing of all responsibility for the educational support of students with disabilities on the local, intermediate, and state school systems.
In the parent community, this alternative was a no-brainer, since the apparent lesson of the civil rights era of the immediately preceding decade (the 60’s) was that civil rights laws had to be focused on a responsible party for litigation purposes, in order to enforce the civil rights framework of special education law. This notion was accurate as far as it went. With the 40th anniversary of the law, it is clear that litigation framed and clarified the meaning of the law to this day.
At the same time, it is also so clear that the current state of special education is a rigid, very partial realization of what advocates and parents had hoped for when the law was passed. Absent momentum for change like that which built and energized the parent movement in the early 70’s, the current law will remain as it is now only the subject of tweaking and puttering in the future. Of the values that supported the original, the only one that has deepened up to this day is the idea of expanding universal access to education, albeit to a weak and inadequate continuum of supports, and active resistance by educational systems to that value’s implementation.
It isn’t clear that the other alternative would have, on balance, produced a better outcome, but there is no question that it would have produced a very different education system, which is the point of this strategic discussion. If the wrap around system had been codified in law, I suspect our focus would be on collaboration agreements, and that it would be easier to perturb the system because of the number of local actors who would be actively and independently involved in the implementation of a set of supports for a specific student. It might also be easier to develop group supports that didn’t undermine the critical nature of customized support for a specific student.
It might be interesting to consider a strategy of supports integration for students that used the framework of Medicaid covered services in a model like the Accountable Community Organization (ACO) that the Center for Medicaid/Medicare Services recently released. This model attempts to implement supports for issues in the social determinants of health along with other social supports, educational supports, and primary care integration. The goal of the model is to reduce health issue impact on life chances in non-health areas as well as health care for individuals and families in a specific community.
There are many more lessons about choosing strategies that can be learned from the choices that were made to implement special education, especially in financing and rights. But they would take up an awful lot of space, so I’ll put that discussion off to another day.
Next Post: Strategy, Part 5: Unintended Consequences of Strategies