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What's Ahead for Students With Learning Disabilities

Trump budget leaves little room for special education students

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In recent months, the opportunities for students with learning disabilities have been simultaneously affirmed and threatened. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District upheld our nation’s commitment to support the academic achievement of children with disabilities. The court’s decision makes clear that educators can—and should—expect all children, including those with disabilities, to make meaningful academic progress.

This welcome decision comes not long after January’s contentious confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, the current U.S. secretary of education, in which DeVos publicly admitted confusion about the federal laws that protect public school students with disabilities. In her first months leading the Department of Education, DeVos has supported drastic budget cuts that would significantly undermine public education.

Washington’s mixed messages are causing confusion and concern for the families and teachers of children with learning disabilities, who represent nearly 40 percent of all school-aged children in special education. The Trump administration’s budget proposal would cut roughly $9 billion from federal education funding. It also fails to give a needed boost to funding for special education—maintained at $13 billion—under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the law that guarantees students with disabilities access to public education and the accommodations necessary to support their learning.

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But the proposal would put an additional $1.4 billion toward school choice, including funding for private school vouchers. If modeled on existing state programs for choice, families of children with learning disabilities would need to relinquish some of their legal rights under the IDEA—including access to special education services or an individualized education plan—in order to receive voucher funding.

The options on the table leave many families and educators wondering: Do federal policymakers truly value the education of children with learning disabilities? While the Supreme Court’s decision affirms long-standing momentum toward better educational support for children with disabilities, the administration’s actions to date have done little to ensure schools are positioned to maintain this progress.

"Advocates of students with learning disabilities want to ensure that we build on existing progress."

As the administration contemplates the way forward, it would be wise to begin with some important background information. For instance, making cuts to public education would affect the 2.3 million U.S. public school students ages 6 to 21 who have identified learning disabilities. The administration should also know that parents, educators, and advocacy organizations are ready to engage in a thoughtful discussion about what is best for these students.

First and foremost, advocates of students with learning disabilities want to ensure that we build on existing progress. In the 2013-14 school year, high school graduation rates for students with learning disabilities climbed to 71 percent, up from 68 percent in 2010-11, according to a forthcoming report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities. But challenges persist. Students with learning disabilities are still three times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers without learning disabilities, in part because early warning signs of their struggles in reading, writing, and math often go undetected by educators. We can and must do better.

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To that end, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (of which I am the president and CEO) stands ready to work with leaders at the Department of Education and with Congress to ensure smart investments in education for students. To start, we ask policymakers to support a federal budget that invests in general and special education. They should also prioritize funding for professional development to help all educators recognize signs of learning disabilities in a student’s early school years and give them the tools to appropriately intervene. Because most students with learning disabilities spend the majority of their school day in general education classrooms, all educators must have the training and resources to support them.

The actions of policymakers, advocates, and educators must match their words. Only by redoubling our nation’s commitment to the rights of children with disabilities can we hope to ensure that all students receive the high-quality public education they deserve.

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