On July 17, 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos delivered her first speech on special education, six months to the day of her near-disastrous comments on the topic during her confirmation hearing. If DeVos serves in her role for a number of years, special education could be transformed during her tenure, partly the result of her leadership, partly the result of forces already underway. She could become the field’s unlikely champion. In order to help her out, we offer the following suggestions for the secretary’s next three speeches on special education:
The Politics of Special Education: DeVos hit the nail on the head in her first speech when she said, “Republican and Democratic administrations alike haven’t done enough to fulfill our promise to students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.” But she failed to strike the nail over and over to drive her point home. When she does give a speech on the politics of special education and advocates for full funding, she’ll be taking on four decades of lip service. On July 17th she said, America “promises that it will never send any student away from our schools,” but for special education students, especially those with more severe disabilities, that promise is hollow without adequate funding. As the Supreme Court ruling in Endrew F. spelled out this spring, babysitting children with complex disabilities is no longer acceptable; real progress must be sought.
Special education is expensive. It currently commands about $100B of the $650B spent each year for public elementary and secondary schools. Of that $100B, the federal government only contributes about $12B, considerably short of the 40 percent of special education costs pledged when the law took effect 40 years ago. The politics of special education, like nearly everything else in America, boil down to money. Special education needs a champion, someone to say, “Our word is our bond. The United States of America will live up to its financial commitment to special education.” The person who makes this stand must get the support of the President and the Republican Party. DeVos is in the best position in the whole world to finally get that job accomplished.
Choice and Special Education: Choice was a major theme in DeVos’s July 17th speech. Adding pressure for choice in special education is the confluence of three factors: the success of autism as a political measure, the use of social media in special education advocacy and the phenomena of unbundling – casting off old ways of doing business and long standing social structures from political parties to mainstream churches.
Parents of children with special needs want progress that puts their children on a higher trajectory. They don’t care if that progress is offered via special education, health insurance, applied behavior analysis, Title 1 funding or Part C of IDEA. They are agnostic about the source; they want every service and every dollar that can help their children, and they want it now. They want vouchers and an accessible supply of service providers; they want public-private partnerships; they want applied behavior analysts, speech therapists, occupational therapists and other highly skilled professionals inside public schools; and they want structures and schedules designed for the success of their children. Encouraged by a new special education advocacy organized via social media as well as the success of autism in gaining health insurance coverage and a political and social climate of unbundling, parents want to be in the driver’s seat, and choice is the vehicle.
The Reauthorization of IDEA: Last reauthorized in 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is in need of an overhaul. DeVos has the opportunity to leave a legacy of greatness if the federal law regulating special education is successfully updated under her administration. Among the issues needed to evolve in the law’s next iteration are differentiating the protections and processes with respect to the severity of the disability and allowing medical and educational personnel to share information (without violating FERPA and HIPAA) to maximize the collective impact for the benefit of those with severe challenges. In addition, raising the age of service for those with serious disabilities from high school graduation or age 21 to age 26, with the principal objectives of the extra time to allow the young adult to live as independently and as fully-employed as possible. The expense of such expanded programs will save money in social supports over the lifespan of the individual.
Becoming a Champion: DeVos has the opportunity to become an unlikely hero of American public school special education. Three speeches won’t get her there; she must still address such issues as a chronic special education teacher shortage, whether Response to Intervention remains in IDEA or moves to the mainstream, and the need for portable Individualized Education Programs. But, the evolutionary steps for special education fit well with DeVos’s focus on choice, surgical federalism and government that works. Taking on the politics of special education, choice and the re-authorization of IDEA will position her as a champion for a population for whom “Republican and Democratic administrations haven’t done enough to fulfill our promise”.
Mark Claypool and John McLaughlin, Ph.D. are CEO and Director of Research & Analytics, respectively, of ChanceLight Behavioral Health, Therapy, and Education. Their most recent book is “How Autism is Reshaping Special Education: The Unbundling of IDEA” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Follow them @MarkClaypool and @ReframeEd