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Disabled Students Under Siege

Since the Individuals with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) were originally enacted, the rights that these laws grant students have frequently been denied by schools. The case that Tom Freston brought against New York City is a prime example of the constant struggle that parents of disabled students face. In 1997, Mr. Freston's son, then 8 years old, was having difficulty with reading. After educational consultants, hired by Mr. Freston, determined that the educational options offered by the New York City public schools were inappropriate, Mr. Freston placed his son in a private school that specialized in learning disabilities. He then sought tuition reimbursement from the City under the provisions of ADA that entitled his son to a "free and appropriate education". The City refused to pay claiming that a child must first fail in a public school before a parent can place the child in a private school and receive tuition reimbursement.

Mr. Freston filed a lawsuit in which he stated that he wanted to make sure that families with disabled children receive appropriate services from public schools. If the public schools cannot provide these appropriate services, then parents are entitled to tuition reimbursement. In October 2007, ten years after the initial suit, the United States Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that New York City had to reimburse the Frestons for their tuition payments. Mr. Freston donated the reimbursed funds to establish a tutorial program for struggling public school students.

Tom Freston's lawsuit established that the nation's principal special education law guarantees every student a free appropriate public education and requires school systems to pay for private placements when their own programs or classrooms are not suitable. While this was a landmark victory for all students with disabilities, it is just one chapter in a continuing battle to ensure the rights of disabled students.

Here is the very troubling reality that far too many students face: 8 million American students in grades 4 to 12 are not fluent readers (U.S. Department of Education, 2001) and 3,000 students drop out of high school every day because of poor reading and writing skills (Partnership for Reading, 2003). The National Assessment of Educational Progress consistently finds that about 36 percent of all fourth graders read at a level described as "below basic." According to the International Dyslexia Association's new Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading (IDA, 2010), between 30 and 50 percent of students are at risk for inadequate reading and writing development. The report posits that most of these at-risk students are not being identified as eligible for special education services. As a result, they are not receiving the type of instruction that they require; instead they are dependent on the instruction given in mainstream classrooms.

As these appalling results clearly indicate, there are far too many teachers and administrators who are woefully ignorant of the research-based strategies that have been proven to help all students read proficiently and to reach their true academic potential. 

At the federal level, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) released a report showing that many students with learning and other disabilities, including dyslexia, are being denied accommodations, such as extended testing time when they take high-stakes examinations, such as the SAT, GRE, or LSAT. The end results are that otherwise qualified disabled students are being rejected from colleges and universities based on test scores that do not reflect their true abilities.

At the state level, pressure is being placed on state lawmakers to reduce the costs that public school districts face. For example, advocates for districts across the state are urging cuts to transportation budgets. This would be an unfair burden for thousands of families of disabled students across New York State.

There are, however, a few bright spots in the struggle to preserve the rights of disabled students including the work of Rep. Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA) and Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) who have proposed a bipartisan dyslexia congressional caucus to raise awareness of the challenges dyslexic students face on a daily basis. Representatives Cassidy and Stark, both parents of dyslexic children, plan to pursue policies that will permit dyslexic students to reach their full potential.

To deny disabled students the access to the programs and accommodations that they are rightfully entitled to under the law further exacerbates the considerable challenges that these students face every day in schools. America cannot afford to waste human capital or squander the talents of any of its students.

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