Breakthrough settlement will expand 'inclusion' in PA's classrooms
by Michael Churchill
A groundbreaking settlement of a suit filed against the state by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) commits Pennsylvania to new efforts to include students with disabilities in regular education classrooms with non-disabled students.
Under the agreement, the state will change how it helps its 501 school districts comply with the federal civil rights law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and how it monitors compliance. The federal law mandates that students with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment” possible.
The settlement is awaiting final approval by United States District Judge Eduardo Robreno. At a hearing in June, many parents told the court they supported the settlement and its steps to assure greater inclusion of children with disabilities alongside other students. Although two county intermediate units that provide special education services and the Pennsylvania School Board Association told the court they opposed the settlement, the parties expect approval before the end of September.
The settlement comes after 10 years of effort in a statewide class action, Gaskin v. Pennsylvania Department of Education. In this case, PILCOP represented 280,000 special education students, 12 named plaintiffs, and 11 disabilities advocacy organizations.
The Gaskin family of Carlisle and other families and advocacy organizations filed the lawsuit against the state in 1994. It was filed on behalf of “all school-age students with disabilities in Pennsylvania who have been denied a free appropriate education in regular education classrooms with individualized supportive services, or have been placed in regular education classrooms without the supportive services, individualized instruction, and accommodations they need to succeed in the regular education classroom,” according to court papers.
The United States Department of Education reported that Pennsylvania was the seventh lowest state in 2002 for including students with disabilities in regular education classrooms.
“Kids with disabilities just benefit tremendously from being educated with their peers in a regular classroom,” said Judith Gran, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, hailing the agreement. She added that the administration of Governor Ed Rendell settled the case because it recognized that “in too many parts of the state not enough has been done to provide students with disabilities a meaningful education in the least restrictive environment.”
A PILCOP review of the state's performance found that state monitoring of school district performance focuses on compliance with procedures and not on the quality of education provided. PILCOP found that the state never requires districts to actually increase the level of inclusion of students with disabilities in the general student population.
Pennsylvania's school districts will be rated, and the 50 districts with the worst record of providing appropriate instruction for students with disabilities in regular classrooms will be facing increased state monitoring and will have to produce corrective action plans. Not limited to monitoring inclusion, corrective action plans will be required to show a meaningful educational benefit as well as procedural compliance.
The lowest-performing 250 of the 501 districts will be on “alert status.”
A list of those low-performing districts will be drawn up each year. Philadelphia and many other area school districts are likely to be on the list.
Under the settlement, the state must increase its training and technical assistance to help districts assure that all teachers have the needed skills and knowledge of best practices appropriate to their students' disabilities.
The settlement creates an Advisory Panel on Least Restrictive Environment Practices that will monitor progress, including growth in inclusive practices, quality of special education instruction, and whether teachers and other school personnel are receiving the training and assistance they need. Twelve of the 15 members of the Advisory Panel will be selected by the organizations representing children with disabilities and their families.
The settlement is enforceable for five years. For the first three years, a dispute resolution process allows disputes that remain unresolved after mediation to go to a federal judge.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Lydia Gaskin, is an example of successful inclusion, but also of many battles to gain access to instruction in regular classrooms. Born with Down syndrome, she recently graduated from the Carlisle School District after being included in courses with college-bound students.