NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

"Mainstreaming" Special Ed Students Needs Debate

August 9, 2013

Americans tend to be a vocal people, sharing their views about almost any issue in the public sphere loudly and frequently. Yet on the question of how to provide special education services to students who need them while not compromising the interests of children who don't, many parents of regular-education students have opted out of any public discourse, says Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, a school attorney and author.

  • Nationwide, about 60 percent of students with disabilities spend at least 80 percent of their instructional time in regular classrooms.
  • Many parents of other children in public schools understand that when teachers focus on students who need more attention, their kids may get shortchanged.
  • Yet most parents opt out of any discussion and don't complain.

The special education system in the United States is highly regulated by law, expensive and sometimes marked by litigiousness. Those working to reform the system are almost exclusively people with a direct stake in it, including school representatives, parents of students with disabilities, advocates, lawyers, special educators, academics and government officials. Since members of the general public and parents of regular-education students (who account for 86 percent of students) rarely weigh in, the interests of regular-education school-age students are not sufficiently explored.

Before 1975, more than a million students with disabilities were excluded from schools and some 3.5 million did not receive appropriate services.

  • That year, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, now called the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1990.
  • Students identified as disabled have since been guaranteed access to what the law calls a "free appropriate public education," and their parents have the right to participate in (and dispute) the school's development of an annual "individualized education program" for their child.
  • No other group of students or parents enjoys such rights.

Very little work has been done to establish how inclusion affects regular students. Studies seem to support the social benefits of mainstreaming for children with disabilities and possibly for regular-education students, but what about the effect on their academic progress?

None of this is about being anti- or pro-special or regular education. The purpose is to focus on fairness and equity for all students in the nation's classrooms. That goal can only be achieved by encouraging many more people, especially parents and educators, to come forward with their views and experiences.

Source: Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, "'Mainstreaming' Special-Ed Students Needs Debate," Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2013.


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