Unequal Education: Special education policies differ from state to state

Portland, Ore. (InvestigateTV) – As the mother of three young boys, life for Oregon mom Edith Goodwin is always unpredictable.

Her children, she said, have unique personalities that require different skills to manage. That’s not just true with how they play, but also how they learn.

For Goodwin and her oldest son, Joseph, it hasn’t been easy. She’s spent most of her life fighting to get him special education services through the public education system.

Goodwin’s struggles happen because of disparate policies across the nation, an InvestigateTV analysis found.

(L-R) Brothers Elijah, Isaiah, and Joseph Goodwin sit together outside their Oregon home while...
(L-R) Brothers Elijah, Isaiah, and Joseph Goodwin sit together outside their Oregon home while Joseph reads a book and their mother, Edith, listens in(Joce Sterman)

As a toddler, Joseph was diagnosed with a speech delay in Colorado where the family was living at the time. Goodwin tried to get him services at a local preschool, and although he qualified, she wasn’t satisfied with the process and opted for private speech therapy instead.

Diagnoses for ADHD and autism soon followed for Joseph, as the family moved for work. But the family’s challenges with the special education system were just beginning.

When they later moved to New Mexico, Goodwin quickly realized eligibility for special education in that state was different.

“They looked at the records and they just looked at the bottom line, at the scores, and said he wouldn’t qualify,” Goodwin said.

The scores that once qualified Joseph for services in Colorado were no longer acceptable in New Mexico. The school, Goodwin said, told her there wasn’t a need to put him in special education because of his performance on the assessment.

“He was very intelligent. He was a leader,” Goodwin said. “He was well-liked in school, so they didn’t recognize a need with him, but he was struggling and falling behind in reading.”

When the family moved yet again to Idaho, Goodwin’s struggle continued. Seeking advice, she turned to Facebook groups to ask how other families navigated the state’s system.

“They recommended getting in touch with an outside person that could teach me how to communicate with the school,” Goodwin said. “They couldn’t go with me to the classroom or ask or advocate for me, but they taught me how to advocate.”

Using those skills, Goodwin requested an evaluation for Joseph, but was ultimately denied.

“I did it by the book, and they still refused,” Goodwin said. “And so, then I took it to the next level by filing a complaint with the state.”

That complaint resulted in mediation, with Joseph eventually getting a full evaluation by different specialists.

In the end, it took Goodwin six months to get her son the services he qualified for under the state’s special education policy. That battle is among the many documented in a binder she’s used for years to track her efforts to obtain services for Joseph from state to state.

In Oregon, following yet another move, Joseph qualified for services with ease. But in Colorado again, the state required a repeat evaluation because it wouldn’t accept the one done previously in another state by Joseph’s doctor.

That was all before the family returned to Oregon once more.

“If they could have just used the information they already had and applied it, they would have been just fine. It was a lot of time that was wasted that could have helped my son,” Goodwin said. “I felt like at times maybe I was failing them as a parent because I was trying to advocate for them. I was trying to do it. And yet no matter how hard I tried, it still wasn’t helping.”

VIDEO: Funding Special Education

Reporter: Jon Decker
Photographer: Owen Hornstein, Scotty Smith

Policy breakdown

The Department of Education has long watchdogged special education programs across the country.

In the 2020-2021 school year, data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed more than 7.2 million students between the ages of 3-21 received special education services under a federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Those stats show California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Pennsylvania were the states with the highest number of special education students enrolled as of the 2020-2021 school year.

In those states, and others, parents like Goodwin have been forced to learn how to navigate a complicated system, discovering access to special education services can vary greatly depending on their state’s eligibility criteria.

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