In 1994, representatives from ninety-two countries met in Salamanca, Spain, and drafted a statement that called for inclusive education for all (UNESCO 1994). Since then, the United Nations (UN) has continued to advocate for inclusive education and the educational rights of children with disabilities around the world (UN Division for Social Policy and Development 2006). International efforts supported the development of a powerful coalition of educators, policymakers, non-profit organizations, and government agencies dedicated to creating more inclusive schools for students with disabilities. However, each national context has unique barriers to making inclusion and high-quality education a reality for students with disabilities. Educator attitudes about disability, myths about students with disabilities and their impact on the learning of their peers, legacies of segregated schooling, inadequate funding and educator preparation in the area of special education, and a lack of innovation in public schools stifle inclusive education efforts in most contexts (Banks 2014; Cameron and Cook 2013; Conley and You 2017; Crouch, Keys, and McMahon 2014; McFarlane and Woolfson 2013). In the United States, the intersections of race, poverty, urbanicity, disability, gender, and other markers of difference complicate inclusive education and often create significant barriers to inclusive schools (Artiles 2003; DeMatthews and Mawhinney 2013; Blanchett 2006; Harry and Klingner 2014).
Principals and other school leaders are in an important position to create more equitable and inclusive schools for students with disabilities, but they need to navigate a complexity of issues tied to special education laws and policies as well as other administrative barriers. In the USA, professional and philanthropic organizations, government agencies, and university principal preparation programmes are focusing greater attention and resources to principal development in the area of special education, the needs of students with disabilities, and research-based approaches that support inclusive schools because a growing body of evidence that suggests principals make an essential difference in the development of high-quality inclusive schools and improved outcomes from students with disabilities (DeMatthews 2015; Bays and Crockett 2007; Billingsley, McLeskey, and Crockett 2019; Boscardin 2007; Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform (CEEDAR) Center 2017; Hoppey and McLeskey 2013; Lashley 2007; Mayrowetz and Weinstein 1999; Theoharis 2007). School leadership that prioritizes inclusion has undoubtedly been a contributing factor to the continued growth of inclusive school opportunities for students with disabilities in the USA (US Department of Education 2018).
In this entry, I briefly summarize special education history and law in the USA to serve as the background to the examining of inclusive school leadership for students with disabilities. This overview identifies key aspects of federal special education law, challenges to inclusive schools, and barriers, forms of resistance, and complexities to inclusion that exist within the US context. Next, I review research focused on inclusive school leadership. In particular, I focus on identifying practices and actions taken by principals who have simultaneously created more inclusive schools and improved student achievement for all students. Finally, I discuss implications of the research presented in this chapter to support recommendations for how to further promote inclusive school leadership and the development of inclusive school leaders.