//  5/11/17  //  Commentary

Without integrated education, “Jobs Jobs Jobs” will not benefit students with disabilities

A report released this week by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education shows that public schools are failing to prepare students with disabilities for graduation. While 83.2% of all students graduated on time in 2014-15 (the highest in 30 years), only 64.6% of students with disabilities graduated on time. This graduation rate is lower than for any other historically underserved group of students, including English language learners.

That is despite the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which have been in existence for 27 to 44 years. At the state level, about half of schools across the country are graduating 85% or more of their students on time and are on track to exceed 90% by 2020.

But in 33 states, students with disabilities’ graduation rates were below 70%. Only one state graduates more than 80% of its students with disabilities (Arkansas, at 82%). In South Carolina and Louisiana, fewer than half of students with disabilities graduate on time. And in Mississippi and Nevada, the figures are even more dismal, with 31% and 29%, respectively, graduating. Even in the one state that graduates 90% of its students (Iowa), only 77% of students with disabilities graduate on time. Only in Arkansas are the graduation rates of students with and without disabilities comparable at 82% and 85%, respectively.

In fact, the rise in graduation rates for students without disabilities, rather than raising all boats, has seemingly left students with disabilities further behind.   For 2011, the first year when disability data was included in the report, 23 states (3 additional states did not report) had graduation gaps of 20% or more between rates for students with and without disabilities. Now, that number has increased to 29 states.

Nor were these students simply those with the most serious cognitive impairments. Rather, most of the students with disabilities addressed in the report were diagnosed with learning disabilities, speech/language impairments, or “other health impairments” like ADHD, epilepsy, or Tourette syndrome. These students can meet graduation requirements and the laws require schools to provide them equal opportunities and special education services.

So what is going on? Do the strategies that increase graduation rates for nondisabled students not work for students with disabilities? Of course they do – if they are offered to students with disabilities. But too often, students with disabilities are separated from their peers in special schools, special classes and special services. As a result, they get less access to the new techniques and skills their general education teachers are offering their peers. Only recently has the federal government started to take seriously the disability rights laws’ requirements that students with disabilities be integrated with their peers. Just yesterday, a judge in Georgia heard arguments in a case challenging a statewide system of segregated schools for students with disabilities.

As I’ve noted in a previous blog, decentralized “school choice” systems, especially those using vouchers, will make the integration of students with disabilities even more difficult to implement and enforce. I fear that, if President Trump and Education Secretary DeVos continue to support voucher systems despite their consistently poor outcomes for all children, there is little hope that they will try to avoid the devastating effects on students with disabilities. But his overarching agenda depends on it.

If the President wants to live up to his campaign promises for “Jobs Jobs Jobs,” he has to let our children be prepared for the jobs that will be available. The fastest growing industries for jobs involve health care and technology. If we can’t graduate ALL our children, including our children with disabilities, with good educations, those jobs will do them no good.

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