Every Student Succeeds Act

An Interview With DeVos’ New Special Ed. Chief

By Christina A. Samuels — April 20, 2018 5 min read
Johnny Collett, who heads up special education issues for the U.S. Department of Education, has deep experience in the field, including as director of special education for the state of Kentucky.
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The selection of Johnny Collett, confirmed in December to oversee special education for the U.S. Department of Education, was a rare point of agreement between the Trump administration and the disability-advocacy community.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was tripped up on disability-policy questions during her confirmation hearing last year, and her staunch support of school choice options has left some advocates worried that parents may not understand that choosing private schools means losing the rights guaranteed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But Collett’s special education bona fides were not in question: A former special education teacher, he has served as a special education director for Kentucky and was the director of special education outcomes for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Four months into his tenure, Collett, the assistant secretary for the office of special education and rehabilitative sevices, is trying to position the department as a supportive partner to states.

In an interview with Education Week, Collett discussed a wide range of issues involving special education responsibilities, including the Education Department’s oversight of the Every Student Succeeds Act; discipline and discrimination; school choice and students with disabilities; and the department’s leadership role.

He talked about the complex interplay special educators face between complying with federal law, supporting high expectations for all children, and recognizing each student’s individual educational needs.

Collett’s comments have been edited for space and clarity.


The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act created several changes that affect students with disabilities. One change is that the No Child Left Behind Act placed no limit on how many students could be given what regulations call “alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards,” which are meant for students with severe cognitive disabilities. But ESSA says that no more than 1 percent of all students in a state can be given that assessment. Advocates fought for that change because they felt it would force states to maintain high academic standards for students, though several states are requesting waivers to that rule.

I was personally very supportive of that. ... There is an allowability for a waiver to the cap within ESSA. As states take ... advantage of that, we’re working closely with [the office of elementary and secondary education] in the review of those and making sure that they comply with the requirements of the law.

I hope that folks can see we’re demonstrating a real commitment to work collaboratively and individually with states, and to make sure that those lines of communications are clear and open.

ESSA also requires that states describe in their federally mandated plans how they intend to reduce bullying, suspension, and expulsion, and the use of disciplinary practices such as restraint and seclusion for special education students.

Certainly, ESSA gives us another great opportunity to support states and work that they, with their stakeholders, have envisioned. That’s an important point that I always think about with ESSA plans. I mean these are state plans, right?

So we believe very strongly, as you know, that states and those who are closest to the child know best how to implement programs within constructs of the law. But to the extent that states ask for or need support around issues related to these particular matters … that’s what we’ve been doing. That’s what we’ve invested in, certainly in the past. It’s work we’re committed to moving forward.


The Trump administration is weighing whether to revoke Obama-era guidance to schools that they may be in violation of federal civil rights laws if they enforce intentionally discriminatory rules or if their policies lead to disproportionately higher rates of discipline for students in one racial group, even if those policies were written without discriminatory intent. The Government Accountability Office released a report last year noting that students with disabilities, as well as black students and boys, were disciplined at higher rates than their peers.

This is obviously of incredible importance to the secretary. Her commitment is to do everything we can and everything that’s appropriate for us to do to support states to make sure that kids are in learning environments that are safe, and productive, and positive for them. So that includes kids with disabilities.

Certainly, this is a major priority for her, and the work that we’re leading here in the office of special education and rehabilitative services, because I think it enables us to say what’s true, that the focus is on each child. … It’s something that the secretary’s committed to, and we’re committed to. OSERS is deeply a part of those conversations to ensure that the needs of kids with disabilities are at the forefront.

School Choice

DeVos entered her position as a supporter of school choice options for students, including charter schools and vouchers that would allow students to attend private schools. Children and youths in private school do not receive individual protections under the IDEA. In a November report, the GAO said that federal action is needed so that parents understand their rights and responsibilities if they accept private school vouchers.

I’m committed to learning about those recommendations and working with the secretary to figure out what’s the most appropriate way for the department to address those. And that work’s ongoing, here within OSERS. We said we would review the information, in those states [the] GAO reviewed, and that work is continuing.

Leadership Goals

Collett, who came to this position with state-level experience, laid out his vision for the federal role.

We work every day to support states around improving childhood education along with employment outcomes, and raising expectations. I’m so glad that our mission talks about both of those. One without the other isn’t enough, right?

I am committed to implementing the laws for which we have oversight, here within OSERS, and we will do that. So compliance matters. But one of the things we know is while compliance is critical, it by itself is insufficient to improve outcomes for kids. So we rightly made a shift to think about both compliance and outcomes.

I don’t want us to get lost in thinking our primary focus is on compliance. On the other hand, I don’t want us to swing it onto the other side and say that our primary focus is on some preconceived one-size-fits-all notion of what an outcome ought to be for each kid.

Either one of those gets us in the ditch. So if I’m driving in southeast Kentucky, where I grew up, it doesn’t matter if I’m in the lefthand ditch or the righthand ditch, I’m off the road, right? What we want to be is on the road. So our focus is on the individual. Guess what happens when you do that? When you focus on the individual, then what you get to see is compliance, and outcomes are in service to him, or to her.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2018 edition of Education Week as Federal Special Ed. Chief Aims to Foster Partnership


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