ESSA and Special Education: The spectrum of hopes and fears of a parent advocate
By Chioma Oruh, Ph.D.
(NNPA/ESSA Guest Columnist)
We are only halfway through 2017 and, already, this year has proven to be groundbreaking in regards to local and federal policies regarding delivery of care education services for students with disabilities; from the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Endrews F. v Douglass County School District in March 2017, which ruled in favor of academically challenging individual education plans (IEP) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), revised in 2004, to the District Court of Appeals ruling in the D.L. v District of Columbia in June 2017 that upholds a 2011 ruling that held the District of Columbia responsible for meeting guidelines to improve upon “Child Find” policies, we have made notable progress in protecting vulnerable students.
Recently, the United States Department of Education’s Office of Special Education hosted the Leadership Conference in Arlington, Va., where Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and other notable speakers and presenters discussed the future of special education with consideration to the changing federal and state education guidelines. Indeed, these are critical times.
As a resident of the District of Columbia, where we hold no voting representation in the U.S. Congress, our system of organization to carry out education policies is unique and, at times, dysfunctional. When it comes to special education, or general issues impacting the rights of individuals with disabilities, our education system holds deep-rooted cultural biases that inform, and thus limit, progressive policies and practices that could more positively and comprehensively improve the quality of life for those directly impacted of all ages and their families. Beyond being a city-state tasked to carryout mandates that the other 50 autonomous and represented state structures are equally (not equitably) tasked with, we also experience growing pains that challenge the systemic intelligence around how our local government manages and integrates care for individuals with disabilities of all ages, with children and youth being the age groups most impacted specifically by educational policies. The combination of a less-than-desirable state system motivated by forces beyond our control (i.e. no taxation without representation) and a difficult learning curve that requires political will of gigantic proportions to change these deep-rooted cultural biases that inform policies, this combination produces both opportunity and despondency in a parent advocate such as myself.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which is the Obama administration’s articulation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), was signed into law on December 10, 2015 and in many ways improves on the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002. In a speech delivered at the 2011 annual meeting for the American Association for People with Disabilities, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan credited the NCLB for its groundbreaking policy, making it impossible for “Americans [to] ignore insidious achievement gaps [for students with disabilities].”
With the school year 2017-18 being the first school year that ESSA takes full effect, it is too early to evaluate any of the areas of improvements to the NCLB, which most notably include more autonomy for states (and the District of Columbia) in determining how this law is implemented, monitored and measured.
Yet, there are articulations within ESSA that show promising signs that are aligned to champion the rights of children with disabilities, while at the same time not being heavy-handed in imposing on states how to achieve greater performance outcomes.
As a parent of two, young children with autism, with my youngest still in pre-Kindergarten, I am encouraged by what I understand to be areas of progressive change to the federal education policy guidelines in ESSA. For one, ESSA now requires states to involve the public and representatives of a wide range of the education community when state accountability plans are developed.
Another critical aspect of ESSA is a sharper focus on “students at risk of not attaining full literacy skills due to a disability,” which includes a wide variety of disabilities.
While ESSA seeks to transform some of the restrictive policies that limited state’s rights to self-determine their education policies, the IDEA is still the leading legislation that guides policies that protect the educational rights of children with disabilities. Similar to the NCLB, ESSA will continue to honor a system that requires states to submit separate performance reports on state tests for students with disabilities, which must still be administered in grades 3-8 and, once again, in high school. ESSA also places a 1 percent cap (which equates to 10 percent of students with disabilities) on the percentage of all students who can take alternate assessments, in order to accommodate students with severe cognitive developmental delays or disabilities. As noted earlier, the verdict is still out on what this all will mean for education outcomes, but as a parent advocate for children with disabilities (including but not limited to my own), I am hopeful that ESSA, coupled with the rulings in the Endrews and the D.L. cases, will put the necessary pressure on the District’s Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE), which is the state education agency (SEA) for the District, given authority to monitor the performance and implementation of the ESSA state policies of the 65 local school agencies (LEA) for the District’s public charter schools plus the District of Columbia Public Schools (DPCS).
As a parent, I am still subject to people’s judgement against my parenting and the perceived maladaptive behaviors of my children with autism. I know firsthand the ugliness of those who would otherwise like nothing more than to see my children disappear or be put away due to different ways they express themselves in the world. I am aware that bullying is very real issue for children with disabilities and that our schools have not offered a program that gives me much comfort that my children will not be a target.
I know that the unauthorized use of forceful restraint methods on school premises, either by school employees or invited law enforcement officers, remains a huge problem, as noted in a recent report led by the University Legal Services of the District of Columbia. And I know that so many other parents share these concerns for legitimate reasons.
Additionally, because the District is not a state, the vaguely defined roles of our State Board of Education, Public Charter School Board and even those of the Superintendent Hanseul Kang and the Chancellor of DCPS Antwan Wilson, remain vague and lack transparency, particularly in regards to special education services and the rights of students (and their parent/community advocates) with disabilities. Until these issues are addressed and clarified with more rigor and commitment both federally and through District policies, my optimism will remain tempered by my fears.