In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law. The intention of ESEA was to achieve “full educational opportunity” for all students. Today, as Congress considers reauthorizing the ESEA, the disability community has the opportunity to build on the progress made for students with disabilities.
Less than fifty years ago, the education landscape for students with disabilities was markedly different than it is today. Around that time, only one in five children with disabilities received a public education. Today, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with disabilities are entitled to a free, appropriate public education as well as the supports and services needed to make educational progress.
Under the IDEA, enrollment of students with disabilities in public education systems soared. In 2012-2013 school year, 6.4 million students were served under the IDEA—8% being students with Autism. While the IDEA focuses on the individual student’s needs, it unfortunately lacks provisions that hold schools accountable for the progress of students with disabilities.
Until the most recent reauthorization of ESEA in 2001, called the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), students with disabilities were excluded from state assessments and accountability systems, inhibiting access and exposure to the general curriculum. Exclusion from the state accountability system left parents without relevant tools to monitor their child’s academic progress and allowed states to ignore their performance. NCLB ensured that schools are held accountable for educational results of students with disabilities just as they are for students without disabilities.
NCLB created a state-by-state accountability system—one that included 95% of all students in state assessments. The law also limited the use of alternate assessments on alternate achievement standards to only those with the most significant cognitive abilities—approximately 1 percent of all students or 10 percent of students with disabilities.
Both the IDEA and NCLB share the goal of improving academic achievement through high expectations, quality educational programs, and accountability systems. Students with disabilities have experienced increased academic achievement under the policies of NCLB, including increased graduation rates with a standard high school diploma as well as gains in both reading and math.
Currently, both the House and Senate are working to finalize a much-needed and long-overdue reauthorization of the ESEA. The Senate version, also known as the Every Child Achieves Act (S.1177), passed with bipartisan support by a vote of 81-17. The House version, also known as the Student Success Act (H.R. 5) passed along partisan lines by a vote of 218-213. Following the August recess, members from both the Senate and the House will meet in conference committee to work out the differences between the two bills. The House and Senate will then have to pass the compromised bill before it is sent to the White House for the President’s signature.
The reauthorization of ESEA should include requirements that count the academic progress of students with disabilities in school accountability ratings. About 85 to 90 percent of students with disabilities—including those with autism— can meet the graduation standards targeted for all other students, as long as they receive specially designed instruction and appropriate access, supports, and accommodations. Inclusion of students with autism in accountability standards leads to inclusion in general education settings, access to general curriculum, and higher rates of graduating with a standard high school diploma.
Reauthorizing the ESEA presents an opportunity for disability advocates and lawmakers to improve upon NCLB and the academic gains made by students with disabilities. Parents, students, and teachers alike must continue to advocate for high expectations of students with disabilities. Schools must continue to hold most students with disabilities to the same standard as their non-disabled peers, include them in general education settings, and be held accountable for the progress of all students.
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