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What We Stand For: Special Education

educating students with disabilities: history, trends, and best practices

A White Paper by Lauren Morando Rhim for Stand for Children Leadership Center

In the United States, children with disabilities have a right to equal access to quality public-education opportunities that meet their educational needs. In the past, children and adults with disabilities were segregated, warehoused, or denied access to education because of their disabilities.

1 Beginning in the 1970s, however, federal and state policymakers enacted legislation to protect the rights of people with disabilities and improve their access to quality education, leading to considerable improvements in educational access, outcomes, and quality of life for children with disabilities.

Fulfilling our national commitment to educate children with disabilities is challenging and requires public schools to serve students’ diverse array of cognitive and physical disabilities. Due to the civil-rights orientation of special-education policy and the role of federal legislation, special education—more than other areas of education— is characterized by a complex web of statutes and regulations, which can be difficult for parents and educators to navigate. At times, these procedures and compliance with them take precedence over the needs of students for effective instruction. Although public schools have made great strides in serving children with disabilities, significant room for improvement remains.

This brief provides a short summary of the historical evolution of special education and related laws, highlights key trends at the intersection of special education and school reform, and outlines effective strategies for educating students with disabilities.

The rest of this paper is available as a PDF download:


Lauren Morando Rhim is the president of LMR Consulting, an education policy, research, and evaluation firm committed to leveraging research to inform practice in K-12 education.

About Stand for Children Leadership Center

Stand for Children Leadership Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides  leadership development and training to everyday citizens. Our mission is to ensure that all children, regardless of their background, graduate  from high school prepared for, and with access to, college and career  training. To make that happen, we:

  • Educate and empower parents, teachers, and community members to demand excellent public schools.
  • Advocate for effective local, state and national education policies and investments.

  • Ensure the policies and funding we advocate for reach classrooms and help students.

Why Stand?

A message from Stand Leadership Center board member John Legend.

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