The Role of Special Education Interest Groups in National Policy

by Tiina Itkonen


*This book is in the Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy in America book series
(Series editors: Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly)

Despite the long-standing presence of special education advocacy organizations in the legislative process, research analyzing their influence in policy making is limited. Groups, in other words, are rarely placed at the core of conceptual frameworks and studied as units of analysis. Historically, much of special education as a scholarly discipline has focused on the comparative effectiveness of various treatment methods in which a child or group of children have been the units of analysis. While the student-centered research has advanced the field in many valuable ways––for example, in identifying and providing more effective treatments for students with disabilities––the field of special education has not analyzed how it generates often competing policy proposals and outcomes. In other words, addressing the question of which legislation gets passed, why, and the role that advocacy groups play in the process.

This study adopts a political perspective and is grounded in the assumption that special education is a policy domain characterized by multiple and competing interests. The interest groups studied operate in a political, multi-institutional policy environment and employ targeted strategies to further specific policy goals. Special education as a national policy is the sum of incremental policy making across multiple institutions. The multiple access points to the policymaking system afford institutions the ability to create and interpret policy across time and contexts. As a result, special education policy is defined by federal law, corresponding state laws, regulations, judicial interpretations, and local implementation. This research focuses specifically how advocacy groups “package” their interests to policy makers, strategies they choose, and their overall effectiveness. This study is the first that analyzes special education interest groups’ behavior and effectiveness over a 30-year time span, using advocacy groups as units of analysis.

One of the major contributions of this study is its use of mixed methods, including quantitative techniques used to investigate questions that are more commonly treated only with qualitative analysis. By operationalizing stories of hope and decline, issue frames, and social construction of target populations, this research illustrates one way to quantitatively analyze problem definition as a political strategy. The study therefore has broad appeal to education policy and political science scholars.

Besides research methodology, the findings also contribute to the theory of problem definition. Author Tiina Itkonen presents an explanatory model that integrates issue frames, policy stories, and construction of target populations, and systematically tests the relationship among the components, and their effect on organizations’ legislative and court victories over time.

The study also increases our knowledge about the political participation of parents of children with disabilities, who have a deep personal investment in the policy outcomes and who behave differently from groups that represent professionals. Finally, the study’s longitudinal focus on advocacy organizations from the initial passage of the federal special education statute in 1975 through its reauthorizations contributes to the knowledge of interest group interactions over time.

The Role of Special Education Interest Groups in National Policy is an important book for readers with a specific interest in special education policy and political scientists who are more generally interested in the broader questions of public policy making. The book will also be of value to practitioners in the fields of special education and public policy.


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