A Passionate IDEA Man

John McLaughlin and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

by Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. John McLaughlin has spent 43 years in and around special education. He’s been at it so long that he started his career when it was still entirely legal for states to tell parents that their special needs children weren’t welcome and couldn't attend school. “Back then, it was legal to say, ‘Your child is mentally retarded,’” John says. “’Your child doesn't behave correctly, he can't come to school.’ That was legal, and there was nothing you could do about it.”

It took decades of work on the federal level with Congress passing a series of laws starting in 1975 to create what became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. IDEA states that children with developmental delays and behavioral problems are still deserving of public education. “That law is a beautiful law in theory,” John explained. “Give every child what they need to maximize their learning potential, to be ready for the world as best they can be, given their circumstances. It's a beautiful thing.”

The law had the best of intentions, but once the research started and the law’s purview expanded and grew, the reality hit hard. “It's a very hard law to implement,” John said. “It is very expensive.”

It doesn’t help that the subject of special education is susceptible to the latest research and “fads” that interest and motivate the local, political, and educational communities at any particular moment. As a result of new and shifting priorities, trying to keep up with the latest research and retool as needed is both exhausting and expensive. With recent deep cuts to education funding on federal and state levels, he sees special education programs and research being cut even further than they have been so far. “We spend around a hundred billion dollars a year in special education out of about six hundred and fifty billion dollars we spend total for K-12 across the country,” John says. “And the thing is, special education is the only parentally enforced federal law in the nation. It takes a parent to enforce a federal IDEA law, and that's a ridiculous situation.”

John says that when you speak to special education directors in districts all the way up to the state and federal departments of education, they will tell you that the only way special education gets better is a lawsuit by a parent. He says a legal judgment forces that district to meet the needs of not only that specific child, but also that disability class of children. They already must, by law, upgrade their access to services for children with autism and their services for children with auditory discrimination issues.

“A parent who gets mad gets a lawyer,” John says. “That's what makes school districts move. It’s unfortunate that the parents have to be the enforcers of the federal law.” And now, more than ever, John says that the parents need to be active and involved and be advocates for their special education children. But with the IDEA laws coming up for reauthorization in the Congress, he fears the worst. “The federal government’s original promise was to pay for 40% of special education cost,” John says. “They pay for 12% to 14% now.” And according to the latest federal budget, Congress wants to slash that percentage even more.

About Dr. John McLaughlin:

John M. McLaughlin, Ph.D., directs the Research & Analytics unit of ChanceLight Behavioral Health, Therapy & Education, which evaluates initiatives, provides reviews of literature, examines specific performance inquiries for school district partners, and conducts and publishes original research. With a background in research design and far-reaching industry connections, John has written extensively about the interface of public education and private capital, and, with Mark Claypool, he is co-authored How Autism is Reshaping Special Education: The Unbundling of IDEA and We’re in This Together: Public-Private Partnerships in Special and At-Risk Education, a book that explores public-private partnerships in education and behavioral learning. With Mark, he is writing a book about autism and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

In addition, John is responsible for identifying transaction opportunities for the company, which have contributed significantly to ChanceLight Behavioral Health, Therapy & Education’s growth. Before joining the company in 1999, John published the influential Education Industry Report and was a tenured associate professor of educational administration. In 1977, he founded Benton Hall Academy, a school in the Nashville area for students in need of a small and caring environment.

Follow Dr. John McLaughlin on Twitter.

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