Experience Shaped Hehir's Inclusive Spec. Ed. Views
As a young special education teacher in the early 1970s, Thomas Hehir worked at a school that embraced a then-radical notion: Place disabled students in as many regular education classes for as much of the day as possible.
The policies at that Framingham, Mass., vocational-technical high school helped frame the future federal special education administrator's views on inclusion, the practice of educating disabled students in the same classrooms as their nondisabled peers.
The students at Keene Technical High School, many of whom otherwise would have been institutionalized, thrived in the environment and learned skills that would help lead them into more independent, productive lives, said Mr. Hehir, who has served as the director of the Department of Education's office of special education programs since September 1993.
"Having that experience really helped form a lot of my views about integration," he said in a recent interview, recalling his three years at Keene.
Today, his goals for the OSEP include making sure schools are held more accountable for the academic performance of students with disabilities, better monitoring of states and districts for compliance with the amended Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and working to lower the dropout rate for disabled students. That rate, federal officials say, is reportedly 4.9 percent, but suspected to be higher.
"Special education is in a very good place right now," he said. "There's a lot of momentum in addressing some of these issues."
The IDEA's Defender
In his 25-year education career, Mr. Hehir has moved from the classroom to administrative positions in the Boston and Chicago school systems, and most recently to his federal post. At the OSEP, Mr. Hehir, 48, has provided a fervent front line of defense for the 27-year-old IDEA, the extraordinarily complex federal law that requires that disabled students be educated in the "least restrictive environment" appropriate.
In his 4« years on the job--longer than any of his predecessors have stayed since the Education Department and the OSEP were created in 1980--Mr. Hehir has spent much of his time battling Republicans in Congress over amendments to the IDEA. At the center of a more-than-three-year IDEA reauthorization process was debate on whether to allow schools to stop educating violent disabled students charged with violations unrelated to their disabilities and involving weapons or drugs. ("House, Senate Easily Approve Spec. Ed. Bill," May 21, 1997.)
Partly because of unrelenting opposition from the Education Department, the proposal was dropped before President Clinton signed the reauthorization measure into law last June.
Mr. Hehir, a political appointee, argues that letting schools stop teaching any disabled student would have stripped the IDEA of its soul--the guarantee of a free, appropriate public education for all children with disabilities.
The office of special education programs is charged with administering the IDEA and ensuring compliance on behalf of the nation's 5.7 million disabled students. It is within the larger office of special education and rehabilitative services headed by assistant secretary Judith E. Heumann, who recommended Mr. Hehir for his post.
The OSEP is often the target of criticism that it is out of touch with the realities of teaching disabled children. The House Education and the Workforce Committee plans to hold hearings later this month to investigate whether the office has overstepped its authority in writing regulations to clarify the IDEA amendments.
Jim Dryden, the principal of the 1,200-student Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston, Md., said that he has found the office to be unreceptive to his concerns. "I don't think principals consider the Education Department their friend in this issue at all," he said.
Yet many of Mr. Hehir's critics say they couldn't find a nicer person with whom to disagree.
Vic Klatt, a GOP appointee who is the education policy coordinator for the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said that Mr. Hehir is an honest and trusted negotiator. "He has a reputation of being a very good guy who shoots straight and is easy and upfront to deal with," Mr. Klatt said. "Certainly we can trust Tom, even if we don't always agree."
Debate--and controversy--are nothing new for the Massachusetts native, whose accent contrasts sharply with Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley's South Carolina drawl. From 1990 to January 1993, he worked as an associate superintendent for the Chicago public schools, where he oversaw the city's then-troubled special education system.
Gail Lieberman, a senior policy analyst with the Illinois Department of Education who frequently worked with Mr. Hehir in Chicago, said he encouraged a wide range of parents and educators to embrace inclusion. He was also instrumental in helping the school system come into compliance with federal civil rights laws and set up a system to better educate emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children, Ms. Lieberman said.
Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director with the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va., said his group appreciates working with someone with experience as a special education administrator. "There's nobody at [the OSEP] that can talk to us and persuade us of anything except Tom," he said.