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Experts Discuss Controversial Court Ruling About Students With Severe Disabilities

May 15, 2017

Special education professionals and parents gathered at the University of Connecticut's School of Law on Friday, to talk about changes that may follow a landmark court case decided last September. One of those changes has to do with perceptions of children with severe disabilities.

In a decision last year, Supreme Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher sparked controversy when he questioned whether schools should be educating severely disabled students.

"The first step is for schools to identify and focus their efforts on those disabled students who can profit from some form of elementary and secondary education," Moukawsher said. 

Margaret McLaughlin, professor at the University of Maryland's College of Education, addressed this idea. She said this language assumes that some children simply aren't able to learn -- and that idea goes against what's called the "zero reject" policy, which is part of federal special education law.

"I really don't sense that there's a national movement to suddenly say, 'These kids can't be educated' and 'They cost too much,'" McLaughlin said. "But I do agree that having it even in a decision like that is not just controversial, it's troublesome."

Robert Villanova runs the executive leadership program at UConn's Neag School of Education. He said that the judge's position raises other questions outside of special education, such as the civil rights of children with disabilities. But he also said it's one thing to know what’s right, but it's another to make it happen, especially when resources are limited.

"Trying to define adequacy, and all the terms that education advocates and parents and educators have to try to sort out at the ground level is obviously complex," Villanova said. "More so when you put the funding issue on top of that. So the conflict between what's best for a child and what a district can afford -- knowing full well that in these economic times, there's a fixed source of income often times."

When the federal government passed the first special education law in the 1970s, it promised to fund 40 percent of the program costs. But less that 10 percent of special education costs in Connecticut are covered with federal dollars each year.