Street level bureaucracy, and its impact on Special Education in K-12!

What is a street level bureaucrat, and how do they impact policy in K-12 settings?  Lipsky (2010) describes street level bureaucrats as those who are doing the work every day, but often don’t have much input in policy or authority/responsibility if the policy is out of touch with their day to day reality.  When you recall the former No Child Life Behind that dictated policy but left no room for implementation to incorporate experience “in the trenches” for those working with students, families and schools, we can see how being out of touch with the hands on aspect of policy implementation can effect policy success.

As a parent, I have been involved in a handful of IEP (individualized education programming) and IFSP (individualized family service plan) meetings for my own children.  As a Child Life consultant, I have been involved in far more of these meetings as an expert who understands not only the impact of a medical diagnosis on the child, but on the child’s entire community (including their family, their classroom, and any other program(s) the child may be involved in within their community).  I have worked quite intentionally to support successful classroom reintegration so that peers become more supportive and welcoming of the child who may still be coming to terms with their own medical needs, and educators become more knowledgeable of how best to support all of their students as they adjust to medical needs in the classroom. I have recommended modifications to classroom structure and activities, as well as educated administrators and classroom educators on what impact a medical diagnosis may have not only on the individual child, but on their peers and adult role models as well, and how we can help to minimize these effects. 

Many general education teachers have expressed interest in learning more about special education laws, yet general educator training in California doesn’t yet require any comprehensive special education instruction in preparation for primary or secondary teaching credentials (Organ, 2016).  Learning disabilities are often learned about throughout special education programs, but special education can be implemented utilizing a range of models that many general education teachers don’t receive ongoing support as they learn how to best incorporate needed accommodations into their classrooms, and many more health issues are simply not understood with resources within the school district to support these “unknowns” quite minimal.

So when street level bureaucrats are discussed, how does this impact a child with an IEP or who may be eligible for an IEP (or at least an SST, student study team) assessment)? When the most knowledgeable person, generally the resource teacher, doesn’t understand how their responsibility can include both conducting or requesting assessments for what is understood about a diagnosis or lack of diagnosis, street level bureaucrats can say something isn’t available when it is, simply because it’s easier and less expensive! So often parents don’t have the knowledge of special education law to demand supports or assessments that make sense for their child, and our educators aren’t legally allowed to offer suggestions.  Students fall through the “cracks” of our special education laws because of the lack of communication between the two sides simply because parents don’t know to ask and educators can’t share recommendations.  I personally had a resource teacher state that a requested assessment wasn’t available at her school, when in reality it was in her district and was absolutely available, but she didn’t appear to understand her role in following policy to ensure the child received the assessment he was required to receive based on existing educational policy, No Child Life Behind.

With new federal legislation on Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA; USDE, 2015) signed into law in 2016, street level bureaucracy is minimized as street level employees are now designing and implementing ways to improve academic successes for all students. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if more general education teachers were provided the knowledge during their credential training on how to support every student in being successful, including those who’s health requires minimal (yet often misunderstood) modifications – which can lead to an IEP, but in many health-related cases, can be addressed through a 504 (SELPA, n.d.)?  And wouldn’t it be wonderful if parents were either provided an advocate or SST/IEP team members were allowed to offer insights into supports that make sense for the children they’re discussing?  While we’re moving much of our policy mandates to the local level, we’re still leaving out many of the stakeholders involved in student success from the bureaucracy itself!  How can we expect changes in how special education or ESSA policy to impact students and families when all educators aren’t provided the resources to help them be successful?

Lipsky, M. (2010 originally published in 1980). Street-Level bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the individual in public services.  Russel Sage, New York.

Organ, Lindsay (2016). Guest lecture, School Reintegration & Support, University of California Santa Barbara Extension

Santa Barbara County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) (n.d.).  Retreived from

U.S. Department of Education (2015).  Every Student Succeeds Act.  Retrieved from

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