Many children with disabilities are getting substandard schooling because states are not complying with federal rules on special education, according to the National Council on Disability, an independent agency that makes recommendations to the president and Congress.
Federal officials are not forcing compliance and, as a result, parents often must sue to enforce the law, the council said in a report to be released this week. In too many cases, children with disabilities are taught in separate classrooms, and schools are not following other regulations meant to protect these students from discrimination.
The council said Education Secretary Richard W. Riley has been more aggressive in seeking to improve monitoring and enforcement than the combined efforts of all his predecessors. Nevertheless, from 1994 through 1998, 36 states failed to ensure that children with disabilities are not segregated from regular classrooms, 44 states failed to follow rules requiring schools to help students find jobs or continue their education, and 45 states failed to ensure that local school authorities adhered to nondiscrimination laws.
"We concur that the responsibility of enforcement of this law should not be borne on the backs of parents," said Judith Heumann, assistant education secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.
"Some states are not where we want them to be and are not implementing the laws as they need to," Heumann said. "We've been spending significant time increasing our monitoring, technical assistance and enforcement."
Nearly 6 million American children receive special education instruction and services at a cost of almost $40 billion, about $5.7 billion of which is federal money.
The special education law was meant to end discrimination against children with disabilities. Many of these children had been excluded from public schools, institutionalized or placed in programs that provided little or no learning. The law was strengthened in 1997.
Under the law, local education authorities that receive federal money answer to state agencies, which in turn answer to the federal Education Department. The department's monitoring division has 35 employees and budget of about $2.7 million.
The Education Department can withhold money from states that do not follow the rules but has punished only one state, Virginia. Federal courts reversed that decision.