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Does Compliance Matter in Special Education?: IDEA and the Hidden Inequities of Practice

reviewed by Dorothy F. Garrison-Wade - August 27, 2018

coverTitle: Does Compliance Matter in Special Education?: IDEA and the Hidden Inequities of Practice
Author(s): Catherine Voulgarides
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: B07D1DLV5T, Pages: 176, Year: 2018
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As a result of inappropriate identification of students, racial disparities in special education still exist irrespective of IDEAs intention to reduce them. This book is an excellent resource for educators (PK-12 and higher education) to examine the complex issue of compliance with IDEA legislation. It should spark discussions on whether we are doing what is best for our students in special education or simply following a federal mandate. According to author Catherine Kramarczuk Voulgarides, IDEA creates the conditions where good intentions in people, policies, procedures, and educational practices cannot ensure that equity is achieved for all students (p. 5). She also notes that the legislation has reproduced racialized outcomes in special education.


Through a comprehensive qualitative comparative ethnographic study conducted in 2011-12,  Kramarczuk Voulgarides used an extended case method to examine if compliance in special education matters. The case study was conducted in a large Northeastern state consisting of three large suburban school districts: Gerrytown, Sunderville, and Huntertown. Each district had been cited for numerous disproportionality indicators (4A, 4B, 9, and 10). In order to explore the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of legal compliance with federal and state special education law, the author conducted 26 formal interviews with district-level staff members and 60 informal interviews with other staff (e.g., teachers, security guards, custodians, social workers, and principals).


In this book, Kramarczuk Voulgarides examines how individual rights, protections, and monitoring of special education outcomes can coexist with persistent racial disparities (p. 1). Through a close review of IDEA, she points out the deficit framework of the legislation which seems to counter the civil rights it was designed to protect. She also demonstrates with heart-wrenching evidence that despite compliance with the legislation, racial inequities and disparities persisted in these districts.

The book is divided into five chapters that highlight some of the complexities of IDEA and the social forces that contribute toward racial inequities in special education. The author purposely incorporates three main ideas throughout each chapter: (a)  acknowledgement of the complexity of disproportionality, (b) questioning of the good intentions of the policies, people, and educational practices when educators do not acknowledge the presence of racial inequities, and (c) debunking the idea that a legislative commitment to equal opportunity and access is sufficient for achieving equity in educational outcomes (p. 10).


Chapter One provides an historical overview of federal laws (e.g., Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Action of 1973, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities with Education Act) designed to protect the civil rights of students with disabilities. While the legal mandates increase services to students, Kramarczuk Voulgarides argues that compliance with IDEA was in many cases symbolic and not strong enough to ensure the equal education opportunity and access to all students (p. 29). The districts in the case study all struggled with compliance. The stories shared by the author show frustration with the paperwork, a lack of resources for managing language barriers, and a lack of support for students of color who seem to be viewed as the cause for the districts lack of compliance and violations. Instead of improving educational outcomes, compliance often produced negative outcomes for these students.


Chapter Two examines in more depth the inequitable outcomes that lead to disproportionality in special education. The real stories in the chapter help humanize the students instead of describing them as case numbers responsible for the districts noncompliance. In Huntertown, for example, the reader learns about a Black student being denied high-quality reading intervention and resources while a white student was given similar services due to the parents threats to the district.


Chapter Three is an essential chapter for educational leaders. It focuses on the need for educational leaders to have a strategic equity vision in order to effectively impact educational inequities. Examples from the districts include the system-wide hallway sweeps in Sunderville that exacerbated inequities instead of addressing them, the detached leadership in Gerrytown, and the indecisive or limited leadership in Huntertown. While each of the districts experienced racial inequities in special education, there was no systematic plan or vision in place to enhance students educational opportunities and services.


Chapter Four examines equity implications of parental involvement in IDEA and the power of parents and/or guardians in advocating for their children to access services and resources. The chapter clearly shows the power of the affluent white parents who know the law and how to leverage it to get services for their children. On the flipside, Black, Latinx, and lower income parents have little influence, and they are left in the dark regarding services available to their children. Examples are provided in which these parents are painted as not involved or not responsive to the school communication, even in one case were the school was found negligent in not communicating to the parent. Racial ideologies such as color blindness are used to neutralize and justify the resulting race and class inequalities (p. 81). Throughout the chapter, the author offers evidence of multiple negative unintended consequences of IDEA implementation and presents questions regarding the effectiveness of compliance.


Chapter Five explores the logic of IDEA compliance and implementation. Questions are raised about how the persistent racial inequities in special education can coexist with the logic of compliance (p. 82). The reauthorization of IDEA 1997 and 2004, Response to Intervention (RtI), and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) are all examined in regards to the districts compliance. While each of the districts received numerous violations for noncompliance with the law, these violations did little to influence education opportunities for students with disabilities within their districts. Sunderville took an attitude of indifference regarding the citations and the district interventions did not deter or address disproportionality. Compliance resulted in negative feelings regarding the students it was designed to protect. Gerrytown took a different approach from Sunderville by hiring a special education behavior consultant to address behavioral interventions. However, there were inconsistencies in the implementation of the Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) and Functional Behavior Assessments (FBAs), which made little impact in the district. Huntertown took a head in the sand approach by not acknowledging that racial issues existed within their district. Their record of procedural compliance with IDEA helped them take for granted civil rights concerns. Accordingly, the author concludes the chapter by stating that the persistence of disproportionality in special education suggests that the civil rights intent of IDEA has not been realized in practice (p. 99).


Throughout the book, well-intended educators used a colorblind ideology to justify racial inequities. Compliance with IDEA was viewed by educators as a means to an end rather than the promotion of equitable educational outcomes for students with disabilities. If school leaders are interested in going beyond compliance with the IDEA law, they need to have authentic conversations that lead to the creation of effective strategic plans to reduce inequities and disproportionality in special education. Through the district stories, Kramarczuk Voulgarides humanizes the students and exposes the ugly and painful reality of the hidden inequities of IDEA compliance. This book is a valuable resource for promoting challenging conversations around racial disparities and inequities in special education. As a former school principal, I recommend the book as a useful district-level book study for educators and district leaders to examine practices within their districts. In addition, the book is an excellent source in higher education for students in teacher education and principal preparation programs to learn about the limits of IDEA and the complexities of procedural compliance. The book will spark many discussions and hopefully also spark ideas to reduce disproportionality and inequities in special education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 27, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22483, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:55:04 AM

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About the Author
  • Dorothy Garrison-Wade
    University of Colorado
    E-mail Author
    DOROTHY F. GARRISON-WADE, PhD, is an associate professor and Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver. She has served in public and private schools as a secondary school principal, counselor, secondary and postsecondary teacher and researcher. These experiences spur her research agenda, which targets inequitable and unfair educational opportunities for individuals, based on race, disability, gender, or social status. Dorothy’s numerous publications and presentations in educational leadership challenge the oppressive racial structure within society and advocate transformation in social structures and institutions that subordinate people of color.
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