In 1981, I went to work for Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service as a field advocate in the counties around Michigan’s Thumb. About half of my work involved representing students and their families in special education disputes. Over the next four years, I got to observe first hand how my special education advocacy and the approach of the special education systems in my catchment area evolved. It was quite enlightening.
Initially, school districts viewed special education largely as a new program only partially paid for by the federal mandate (this remains true today). The important aspects of it to the district CAS were how to pay for it and what impact did it have on their previous model of education services. There was, early on, and continuing to this day, a constant source of tension between regular education and special education systems (SPED services receive roughly twice the funding per pupil than regular education receives). Demands by special education students for supports and services that were outside the ken of past education practice were either ignored or denied.
This framework was ripe for effective advocacy. In the first few years of special education advocacy, it was very easy to win programs, supports, and services because the district didn’t really think it had to do anything to win other than obstruct demands. Advocates had time to prepare, to deepen their understanding of the law at both Federal and State levels, and to become adept at using the state and federal rules in the negotiations.
This advantage, like all advantages in the competitive interaction between different CAS, didn’t last.
One set of changes that our effective advocacy triggered was a dramatic increase in the number of students and families that requested advocacy assistance. Since the MPAS budget didn’t increase based on demand, this resulted in less time and resources for pursuing advocacy outcomes. In turn, this made our interventions less effective, overall.
The other set of changes that our effective advocacy triggered was to be taken more seriously by the districts. They began to commit resources to fight our advocacy including, eventually, hiring attorneys on retainer to improve their obstruction. This also meant that the cases would be more complex (basic failures of civil rights were avoided), requiring more time from advocates and less successful outcomes. The upshot of these various forces (including successful State efforts to eliminate large amounts of state funding for MPAS) was, over time, to dramatically reduce individual special education advocacy by our organization.
Similar shifts in response by the system took place at the State and Federal level. The current state of special education law is an extraordinarily rigid narrowing of the possibilities that seemed just over the horizon in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. There have been some separate increases in advocacy effectiveness in ways other than the single student advocacy model of the early years, which I will talk about later.
This pattern of initial success followed by a slow steady reduction in advocacy effectiveness and the reduction of civil rights to rigid requirements is so common across all areas of disability rights that I think of it as a standard development pattern in the exercise of advocacy.