A Practical Approach to Serving the Special Needs Student (K-12)

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'Well, in our country,"'said Alice, still panting a little, 'you'd generally get to somewhere else -- if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing.'

'A slow sort of country!' said the Queen.  'Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.  If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!'

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

With the above quote in mind: Welcome to Wonderland.  As any schoolteacher or administrator today knows, the law surrounding the education of special education students is demanding, complex, fast-changing, ambiguous, and at times inconsistent.  It is all districts can do–no matter how fast they run–to minimally keep up with their legal obligations toward special education students.  Districts are expected to proactively identify and timely assess potentially eligible students; provide appropriate educational and related services to those students; and do so in the least restrictive environment possible.  Even if fully funded, the pedagogical demands of these legal requirements would be formidable.  However, districts are called upon to achieve these feats with funding that is woefully inadequate.  As a result, districts–running at full speed–find themselves slipping slowly backwards as waiting lists for assessments and services become backlogged, and districts face mounting litigation.

Moreover, within this already challenging environment, the demands on districts have continued to grow, while school budgets shrink.  For example, districts must now reconcile the sometimes conflicting obligations of IDEA and the No Child Left Behind Act ("NCLB")–Congress' sweeping revisions to the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act ("ESEA").  Among its many impacts, the NCLB directly affects an array of legal obligations regarding special education students.  At the state level, the STAR testing regime, Public Schools Accountability Act and high school exit exam have established additional obligations regarding assessment of special education students.   Further, the California Legislature has recently made crystal clear that school administrators struggling with these demands may not impede the efforts of special education teachers to assist students in obtaining services.

In short, implementing the IDEA, the enforcing regulations, and related state and federal law presents a significant challenge to local districts.  To help meet that challenge, this guidebook provides education professionals with an overview of their legal obligations, and strategies for compliance.  In particular, this guidebook stresses the value of "doing it right the first time."  As daunting as the IEP process may appear in the moment that it must be carried out, a well conceived and executed IEP will expend far fewer resources (and better serve students with exceptional needs) than a poorly handled IEP that triggers dispute and litigation.


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