Why is Leandro Important for Students with Disabilities?

Students with disabilities are covered under the Leandro court decision. Leandro established that the North Carolina constitution guarantees all North Carolina students the opportunity for a sound, basic education. This includes students with disabilities. Although Leandro is primarily focused on general education, it also has positive implications for special education. The WestEd report, issued as part of the Court’s remedy in the case, provides an overview of the current education landscape in NC and includes recommendations that will have positive impacts on all students in NC, including students with disabilities.

Students with disabilities lag substantially behind their peers without disabilities when it comes to education outcomes. In 2019, less than 20% of students with disabilities were grade level proficient in Reading, compared to over 57% of all students. Only 21% of students with disabilities were grade level proficient in Math, compared to over 58% of all students.[1] The WestEd Report consistently shows that students with disabilities need additional supports to achieve the same educational outcomes as students without disabilities.

Students who are eligible for special education are entitled to specially designed instruction that meets their unique needs. Specially designed instruction means adapting the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to meet the student’s needs and allow them to access the general curriculum. This includes accommodations and modifications, such as smaller classes or multisensory instruction, which require additional resources to provide.

The WestEd report makes it clear that North Carolina’s funding system must prioritize higher-needs students, including students with disabilities, by giving more resources to low funded school districts and schools serving high-need populations.

How do the WestEd Recommendations Benefit Students with Disabilities?

1. Eliminating the cap on Special Education funding.

The “cap” limits the amount of special education funding a school district can receive. Currently school districts can only receive special education funds for 12.75% of their total student population, even if more than 12.75% of their students have IEPs. Last school year, over half of the school districts in NC identified more than 12.75% of their students as students with disabilities, needing an IEP, so they did not receive special education funding for all of their students with disabilities. It is important for school districts to have enough money to provide the additional supports that students with disabilities need to make progress.

Although this is not addressed directly in the WestEd report, we think that NC should also examine the way we fund special education in the state and should consider whether there is a different funding model that would distribute funds in a fairer way.

2. Providing funding to increase the number of support personnel, like school nurses, psychologists, counselors, and social workers.

Increasing the number of support personnel in schools would allow schools to better meet the social-emotional, behavioral, and physical health needs of children with and without disabilities. NC currently employs far less support personnel than recommended by national organizations.

3. Directing additional resources, opportunities, and initiatives to economically disadvantaged students and high-poverty schools.

This impacts students with disabilities because 64% of students with IEPs are also economically disadvantaged and 25% of students with disabilities attend high-poverty schools. The WestEd report found that economically disadvantaged students need additional supports to achieve the same educational outcomes as students who are not economically disadvantaged. The report also found that students attending high poverty schools are much less likely to receive a sound, basic education.

4. Providing a qualified, well-prepared, and diverse teaching staff in every school and provide a qualified and well-prepared principal in every school.

This means qualified special education and regular education teachers and principals qualified and well-prepared to meet the needs of students with disabilities in their school. Most students with disabilities spend at least part of their day in a regular education classroom so it is important that regular education teachers are prepared to support and meet the needs of students with disabilities in their class. It is also important for special education teachers to be qualified to provide the specialized instruction students with disabilities need to make academic and functional progress and to access the general curriculum. Delivering specialized instruction requires specialized training, which costs money.

Studies show that school leadership is the second most important factor influencing student learning after teacher effectiveness. Principals play a vital role in recruiting, hiring, and retaining effective teachers. The WestEd report found that NC principals would like to receive more professional development related to supporting children’s physical and mental health, leading schools that support students’ social and emotional development, and creating school environments that use restorative justice practices. All of these areas of professional development could improve the school environment for students with disabilities.

5. Provide all at-risk 4-year-old children, including children with disabilities, the opportunity to attend high-quality, full-day early childhood programs like NC Pre-K and Smart Start.

Attending NC Pre-K has been shown to raise children’s math and reading scores and reduce their rates of special education placement and grade repetition through elementary school. Smart Start and NC Pre-K programs have been found to significantly reduce the likelihood of special education placement in third grade. Special education placements in third grade are associated with adverse outcomes such as larger deficits in reading ability, lower academic scores, and lower chance of high school completion. Conversely, children who receive special education services early in their education (Pre-K and K-2) and then transition out of these services, see academic gains across their development. Pre-K and Smart Start allow for early detection of special education needs. Early education allows for the opportunity to ameliorate or even prevent some disabilities before children enter Kindergarten.

Learn more about the Leandro decision and how you can get involved at everychildnc.org