“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none,” counseled Shakespeare, and that’s a high yet essential bar in the context of federal education law. Currently both the U.S. House and Senate are debating this delicate balance of inclusion, trust and oversight for a new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), one that unleashes states from what many consider the stranglehold of federal authority while still protecting vulnerable children from the vagaries of intrastate politics. Love is easy. But how much should we trust states to intervene in their lowest-performing districts? How do we do no wrong, especially to our neediest cohorts: disadvantaged children, English-language learners, students of color and those with disabilities?
Someone to Keep Watch
One of the most contentious questions during this reauthorization process is the role of the federal government in state public education systems. To some—the Rand Pauls of the world—the federal government and the secretary should have no role at all, beyond dispensing funds. This makes a great sound bite for Tea Party aficionados and, oddly, some teachers union leaders. But parents of special needs kids (full disclosure: I’m one) know that it’s just too easy for state departments of education and individual school districts to profess love, ask for trust and then blithely go straight ahead and do wrong. In fact, political bodies can’t mandate trustworthiness. That’s why a new ESEA must contain some degree of federal oversight. Trust but don’t verify—as
Chad Aldeman wryly put it—places children at risk.
But Really, Who’s Counting?
Let’s stick with children with special needs, who currently represent about 12 percent of total U.S. public school enrollment. Back in 1965 when ESEA was first authorized by President Lyndon B. Johnson, only 1 in 5 children with disabilities even got through the schoolhouse door. The federal government had no oversight authority and every state had its own rules. The disability community watched and learned from their brethren in the civil rights community. Eleven years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). This legislation required that all children with disabilities have access to a free public education and, suddenly, American public schools had to open their doors. But there was no accountability or oversight. States didn’t disaggregate data and report out on student achievement levels for sub-groups such as special needs kids. The federal government’s role was limited to funding. Thus, special needs children were present, but unaccounted for. Their lack of progress was concealed by the cloak of undifferentiated district averages. We didn’t count them, so they didn’t count. Before No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the high school graduation rate of children with disabilities was 48 percent, with wide disparities among states. Too much trust led to too much wrong. Upon the advent of NCLB’s subgroup reporting requirements and federal oversight authority, state departments of education started paying attention to the academic growth of special needs kids. If states couldn’t demonstrate appropriate levels of student growth, the federal government had authority to step in and mandate corrective action. Love a lot, trust a little, and do no wrong.
What’s Love Got to Do With It?
For the first time, students with disabilities counted. And it was that prudent balance of federal and state intervention that led to increased opportunities and access for special needs children. While we still have far to go, NCLB’s state and federal accountability requirements have resulted in a current high school graduation rate of 64 percent among all students eligible for special education, a 16-point increase from pre-NCLB days. Disability advocates know that shifting ESEA’s balance too far towards state autonomy will do great harm to children with special needs. We don’t trust the inconsistencies of state politics and budgets to protect our needy children. That’s why disability rights groups joined with major civil rights groups to lobby the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) committee for a newly-authorized ESEA that:
Preserves the critical federal protections of that law, requires states to identify schools where all students or groups of students are not meeting goals and to intervene in ways that raise achievement for students not meeting state standards.… [Granting the secretary of education] sufficient authority to ensure the law is appropriately implemented and the most vulnerable students are protected.
this letter include the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the National Disability Rights Network. Students with disabilities have been historically discounted. This discrimination was alleviated by NCLB’s requirements that states act when children demonstrate inadequate progress. Parents don’t need D.C.’s help to love our kids, but we do need our elected officials to preserve a measure of federal oversight authority for a new ESEA.
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey education politics and policy for WHYY’s Newsworks and NJ Spotlight. She is a mother of four and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, for 10 years.
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...