Special Education In Connecticut

The federal law governing special education is called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. It is codified in Title 20, United States Code, starting at section 1400. It was initially passed in 1975. A number of major reauthorizations have taken place. The two most recent were in 1997 and in December 2004. The December 2004 changes took effect, for the most part, on July 1, 2005. The changes made in the 2004 Act are numerous and varied, but perhaps not revolutionary.

In early 2002, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which is intended to ensure quality education and a high level of accountability. Many of the provisions of NCLB had an uncertain impact on IDEA 1997. Hence, IDEA 2004 attempts to clarify the impact of NCLB.

The IDEA speaks in terms of a State Education Authority (SEA) and a Local Education Authority (LEA). In Connecticut, the SEA is the State Department of Education. The LEA is generally the local school district, which is referred to as the district or the Board. In this context, the Board refers to the district’s administration, not to the actual Board of Education and its elected members.

State and Federal Law

Connecticut passed its special education law in 1967. The federal Education of All Handicapped Children Act initially passed in 1975. Hence, the Connecticut act predates the federal. The federal law did not pre-empt the field. Rather, federal courts can enforce both federal and relevant state law. “Relevant state law” is law which is not inconsistent with federally mandated requirements, both substantive and procedural, of the Act, and includes, inter alia, procedural safeguards which are more stringent than required procedures set forth in the federal law. Burlington v. Department of Education, 736 F.2d 773 (1st Cir. 1984), aff’d 471 U.S. 359 (1985). For the most part, Connecticut and federal requirements have converged. Yet, most of the detailed procedures for eligibility and due process stem from Connecticut law, as does the nomenclature. In Connecticut, there is a Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meeting. In New York, it is called a Committee on Special Education (CSE) meeting. In the federal
law, it is called an Individualized Education Plan Team (IEP Team) meeting.

The Connecticut Approach

The Connecticut State Department of Education (SDE) takes a hand-off approach to local school boards. This compares to New York, where the state department closely regulates most aspects of special education. The Connecticut SDE advises local school boards on questions, when raised. Indeed, SDE also provides advice to parents. The state approves private special education schools, but the approval is largely a matter of seeing if the right boxes are checked, rather than looking at the quality of the education provided. The state, pursuant to federal law, receives and processes complaints, but appears to be interested only in procedural requirements, avoiding making any comments on the substance of the claim. And, the state runs the due process and mediation systems. This is all done by a tiny group of people in Hartford. The SDE also runs the Special Education Resource Center (SERC), which serves as an information clearinghouse, library, and training center. As a general rule, the State Department of
Education sees itself as a consultant, rather than as a regulator.

The Special Education Universe in Connecticut

For the 2007-2008 school year, there were 68,989 children in Connecticut who were designated as eligible for special education services. This number is a drop of 5,000 from five years earlier. Special education students represent about 12% of the total student population of 574,287. Districts vary widely in percentages designated as eligible for special education, with some districts near 5% and others over 18%.

Among disabilities, the largest group, comprising 32% of the special education population, consists of students with learning disabilities (LD). Five years ago, learning disabled students represented 38% of the special education population. The next largest group, accounting for 21% of the special education population, contains students with speech or language impairments. Other health impairment (OHI) accounts for 17%, severe emotional disturbance (SED) is 8.5% and intellectual disabilities (ID) are 4%. Some 6.4% of special education students in Connecticut carry the Autism label. The racial differences are, however, significant. The following chart shows the 2007-2008 percentage of each racial/ethnic grouping that has a particular special education designation.

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