This story about special education services was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Single mom Nicole Vaughn has spent the better part of her adult life advocating for her five adopted children with disabilities. But when schools shuttered for the coronavirus last spring, Vaughn gained a slew of new responsibilities, like helping her kids access virtual classrooms and coordinating the special education services they receive.
“I had to send emails to the speech and language provider saying, ‘Hey, they haven’t seen you, I haven’t seen you. What’s going on?’ ” said Vaughn, who lives in the Detroit metropolitan area.
Once those services resumed, Vaughn said sessions were shorter than the time mandated by her children’s individualized education programs. Known as IEPs, these plans are meant to ensure that students with disabilities receive specialized instruction and services tailored to their needs.
Vaughn decided to let it go.
“It’s to the point now you have to pick and choose your battles,” she said. “Because other than that, I’m calling and texting everybody, every day, about something.”
Simultaneous crises of a pandemic and recession are further straining a special education system that has long struggled to effectively serve students with disabilities. Chronic shortfalls in federal funding have burdened local education agencies and families, and — in the most extreme cases — denied these children access to quality education. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), today, more than 7 million children, or 14 percent of public school students, are entitled to special services and accommodations to help them learn. But in the legislation’s almost 50-year history, the federal government has never fulfilled its promise to pay 40 percent of the average cost of educating students with disabilities.
Special education teachers, meanwhile, tend to be among the least-experienced educators, and states often have trouble filling those positions. In Vaughn’s state of Michigan, over 40 percent of teacher vacancies last year were in special education, according to a Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators survey with responses from roughly half the state’s school districts.
The consequences are evident in the data: Graduation rates for young people with disabilities often fall far below those of other students, and without the right support, children in special education are also much more likely to repeat grades and twice as likely to be suspended.
“These students in particular are getting the short end of the stick, and they have been for some time,” said Elena Silva, director of the pre-K-12 education policy program at the think tank New America and the mother of a child with a physical disability. “The schools, the staff — they know it. You talk to anybody at a school or staff about the need, and whether they have what they need to meet the needs of these kids. And they’ll tell you, they don’t.”
But some families and their advocates are hopeful that the pandemic could prompt a reckoning and systemic change. During distance learning, educators have needed to get creative to reach all their students, leading to new ways of collaborating with parents and approaches to instruction that education experts say could be integrated into how schools operate going forward.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to say that what we were doing worked or was equitable,” said Meghan Whittaker, the director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “And this gives us a chance to rethink that.”
Vaughn’s advocacy on behalf of her kids came to a temporary standstill this spring, when she was hospitalized with the coronavirus. In late March, her symptoms worsened quickly and doctors put her on a ventilator.
Vaughn feared how her absence would affect her children’s education. “I cannot leave them,” she remembered thinking before slipping into a coma. “Nobody is going to go to bat for my kids the way I go to bat for them.”
After waking up five days later, she wasted no time trying to help her kids adapt to their new normal, which included online classes. Before she could even speak again, she wrote messages on a whiteboard that a nurse read over the phone to her children and sister, who was filling in as their guardian.
It’s not unusual for parents of students with disabilities to take an outsize role in their children’s education. Special education can be a confusing and impenetrable system, and parents often have to become experts in state and federal laws to ensure their kids receive appropriate support.
“Parents are co-equal members of an IEP team,” said Julie Causton, chief executive of Inclusive Schooling, an education consultancy, and a former professor of special education at Syracuse University. But not all families have the time or means to take on that responsibility, so the goal must be to “make sure kids get what they need without relying on the family structure,” she said.
A graduate of Detroit Public Schools and the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree, Vaughn adopted a newborn named Daniel in 2001 and, later, his biological younger brother, Jacob. When Daniel’s preschool teachers said he was often restless and impulsive, and Jacob missed typical milestones for walking and talking, both boys were assessed for disabilities. Together, they were diagnosed with autism, ADHD and cognitive impairment, and Vaughn was told Jacob might never be able to live independently. Vaughn recalls feeling like the special education professionals were speaking in code.
“All these educational terms and these acronyms — it was just all new to me, and it was also very intimidating,” said Vaughn. “I would come home after we had one of these meetings or sessions, and I’m Googling, I’m researching, and it’s overwhelming.” In time, Vaughn decided to get a master’s degree in special education to make sense of the system. She also adopted three more children: a daughter and twins with speech and language delays.
Even with her training, Vaughn ran into problems as she tried to help her kids. The school district in which her elder children were previously enrolled, Dearborn Heights School District 7, graduates special education students with regular diplomas at a rate of 73 percent, well below the state’s target rate of 80 percent, according to the state’s most recent special education public report. The district and surrounding area also have trouble with staffing: As of mid-November, there were around 40 special education job vacancies in Wayne County, where Dearborn Heights is located, and about 13 percent of all teachers and 32 percent of principals and school leaders in the district lacked prior experience in these roles.
When Jacob was in third grade, Vaughn said she was informed that his speech and language and occupational therapies were ending. “ ‘He’s pretty much plateaued; he’s reached his maximum level of performance,’ ” Vaughn said the IEP team told her. “ ‘We don’t want him just lingering in the services. We have other children.’ ” On another occasion, a social worker referred to Jacob as “she” in his behavior plan, Vaughn said. She confronted the principal for reusing another child’s program. “It’s called an individualized education plan!” she recalled saying.
Today, Vaughn works as a counselor for Detroit Public Schools and said she sympathizes with overburdened school staff. “It keeps going back to time and money, which it seems like school districts never have enough of,” she said.
Vaughn was not alone in her struggles to get her children services this year. Last spring, during remote learning, just 20 percent of students with disabilities received the services to which they were entitled, and 39 percent received no support at all, according to a survey by ParentsTogether Action, a parent-led advocacy group. And an American Institutes for Research survey found that nearly three-quarters of 744 school districts reported it was more or substantially more difficult to provide appropriate accommodations for their students with disabilities.
“For a student that has a learning, attention or behavioral disability, being at home — without teachers, without educators, without one-on-one support, being on screens — is almost an impossible way for them to learn well,” said Silva of New America.
Some families have grown so discouraged with special education during the pandemic that they have opted out of the school system altogether, at least for now. In March, LaTonya Davis, an education consultant in Houston, decided to pull her 10-year-old son with autism out of his KIPP public charter school and home-school him for the duration of the pandemic.
“I’m solely responsible for making sure I make the best choices for him,” she said of her decision.
Davis, a single mother, developed a daily schedule of activities tailored to her son’s needs, known as a “sensory diet,” which she’d tried unsuccessfully to have his teachers adopt in the past. She said she hopes that giving her son one-on-one attention will help him get a quality education even during school closures.
But few parents have the expertise to support their kids around the clock like Davis, which could put students in special education, who are already among the most vulnerable, further behind. Indeed, special education experts have already sounded the alarm about academic regression and loss of life skills during school closures.
Recognizing the unique obstacles that students with disabilities face in remote learning, several of the country’s biggest school districts, including Los Angeles County and Baltimore City, have prioritized bringing back at least some special education students to school buildings before their peers. But doing so has proved very difficult. Seattle Public Schools, which approved a school-reopening plan prioritizing kids with disabilities in August, made headlines in October because just one student was receiving in-person services.
Yet, for schools continuing to teach remotely, resources are getting harder to come by. In California’s Hawthorne School District, special education teacher Albert Morales teaches transitional kindergarten (an extra year of instruction before kindergarten) through first grade. Classes will be online until at least the spring.
This fall, Morales has struggled to get the tools he needs to support his students. The district distributed Chromebooks at the start of the school year, but several of his young students with disabilities couldn’t use the mouse and keyboard. And though the school is swapping out the devices for iPads, which are more accessible to kids with disabilities, there weren’t enough for all students, he said.
Morales added that education companies made a few services that worked for his students free this spring, but that’s no longer the case. “All these great resources are out there,” he said. “But teachers have to pay out of pockets.”
Special education teachers aren’t meant to carry the financial burden. However, the federal government reimburses just 15 percent of the additional costs for educating students with disabilities — far short of the 40 percent promised under IDEA — according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
And a budget crisis won’t help close funding gaps: “They’re not going to have as much money, and they’re going to need to do twice as much,” said Silva of New America. “What do you do for your most vulnerable, when you have to do so much more and you have half the money?”
“That’s just a very real problem,” she said. “I don’t think we can innovate out of that problem.”
Bills introduced in the Senate this summer and the House in October would provide more than $12 billion for students with disabilities, but both have stalled. Special education advocates, however, are hopeful that President-elect Joe Biden, whose wife, Jill, is an educator, could make good on a promise he made to fully fund IDEA within 10 years.
Without additional financial help, some public schools could be forced to make do with even fewer experienced staff serving kids with disabilities. Shortages of special education teachers are a national problem, with 48 states and D.C. reporting difficulty hiring and retaining staff, according to a 2016 report from the Learning Policy Institute, the most recent data available. The problem is most severe in districts predominantly serving students of color and from low-income backgrounds, where schools are already more likely to be staffed by a transient group of untrained teachers.
Nationally, special education has the highest proportion of unlicensed teachers, even though many districts waive certain typical teacher licensure requirements for those positions, according to Roddy Theobald, a researcher at the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. Throughout the pandemic, many states have waived even more requirements, said Dan Goldhaber, director of the center. That could ultimately cause harm to students if it means they are being instructed primarily by teachers who lack the skills to serve them, experts say.
Meanwhile, paraprofessional positions, an hourly role supporting students with disabilities, are on the chopping block in districts around the country. Some experts worry that special education teacher positions could be next. The first teachers to be laid off are typically the least-experienced, which could disproportionately affect special education teachers, who tend to be younger on account of the profession’s high attrition rates, said Goldhaber.
Budget cuts haven’t hit Hawthorne’s special education staff yet, but the pandemic has deepened staffing issues in Morales’ district nonetheless. In 2018, nearly eight in 10 California schools had openings for special education teachers, and more than two-thirds of Hawthorne’s new hires had not met all of California’s teacher certification requirements, according to the Learning Policy Institute. This September, a deficit of teachers trained to support students with disabilities meant that when a special education colleague was absent, Morales had to teach an online class twice the size of his usual group, which he said made high-quality instruction impossible.
And that’s in California, which has done more than many states to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. At a time of widespread budget cuts, it is boosting support for special education: Its 2020-21 budget allocates an additional $550 million to special education and $100 million for students requiring specialized services, and sets aside $15 million to recruit and train special education teachers.
With the special education system under strain, many weary parents and teachers share a common mantra: a hope that things will get back to normal soon. However, advocates say that “normal” isn’t good enough when public school wasn’t designed to support every child in the first place; instead, what’s needed is systemic change that goes further to improve schools for all children, especially the most vulnerable.
“How do we take what we’re doing in this moment and use this chance to prioritize equity and put marginalized students first, so that building our system back, they are at the center of it, rather than at the margins?” said Whittaker of the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
Fueled by pandemic-driven necessity, some districts have found ways for parents and educators to collaborate more closely to support kids with disabilities. This spring, many states implemented what are often called “individualized distance learning plans,” which spell out more clearly than IEPs do how schools and families should work together.
The importance of parent-teacher cooperation is outlined in IDEA, yet “we don’t do it well at all,” said Silva of New America. “This is an opportunity to connect home and school in a way that we’ve always promised and never been able to achieve.”
And though IEPs have long pledged individualized instruction, distance learning often makes it a requisite. “It acknowledged that students have lives outside of school with very real stressors and responsibilities,” said Causton of Inclusive Schooling.
During the pandemic, teachers across the country have been forced to find ways to reach their students in a manner suited to their needs: by recording videos for children who missed synchronous lessons, sending worksheets home with kids who lacked internet access and adjusting deadlines to fit students’ schedules. Causton wants to see schools continue this creative, flexible approach with all students going forward. Not only will children with disabilities benefit, she said, “but so will everyone else.”
Part of that goal involves rethinking special education so that disability doesn’t suggest a deficit in a student’s ability to learn, but rather a set of individualized needs that schools must meet — not unlike a student without internet access’s need for a hard-copy alternative.
“We for too long sorted and separated human beings based on disability,” said Causton. “This is the moment where we need to look at all the structures that have created such inequitable outcomes for kids,” she said.
“Instead of measuring how ready a student is to fit into our system, we can measure how ready our system is to support all students together,” she added.
That’s the kind of change Nicole Vaughn hopes to see. At a meeting this fall to discuss her son Jacob’s IEP, a social worker told her for the sixth consecutive year that the boy, now a high school senior, doesn’t answer open-ended questions, she said. This time, Vaughn had had enough.
“I said, ‘Please don’t say it anymore, because it’s the equivalent of saying a person that’s in a wheelchair cannot run a marathon,’ ” said Vaughn. “ ‘I don’t want to hear any more about what he can’t do. Let’s talk about what Jacob can do.’ ” Though he won’t receive a high school diploma, Jacob will graduate this spring with a certificate of completion. He also talks, engages and learns in a classroom alongside his peers.
“All kids learn,” she said. “They just don’t all learn at the same pace, the same way.”