U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said that the special education field has much to be proud of, from young children with disabilities participating in preschool programs to a focus on postsecondary transition for students leaving the K-12 system.
But every point of progress should be a reminder that there’s more work to be done, King told a joint convention of special educators at the district and state level Monday.
For example, “Graduation rates are up for all of our [student] subgroups,” King said. “And yet, we still know that too many of our students are not graduating from high school, and too many of our students are leaving without the skills they need for success.”
Likewise, many students with disabilities are benefiting from schools taking a more positive approach to discipline, he said. But 1.6 million children are attending schools that have a sworn law enforcement officer on staff, but no school counselor, he said. Students with disabilities are disproportionately referred to juvenile justice programs, suspended, or expelled.
“School resource officers should not be responsible for discipline. Trained educators should be responsible for discipline,” King said. “When school resources officers are used in that way ... we put students on a school-to-prison pipeline.”
King’s address and Q&A session were part of a joint meeting between the Council of Administrators of Special Education and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. It’s the first time the two groups, made up of district-level and state special education officials, have had a joint convention.
During the question-and-answer period, King said that the Education Department is part of an interagency federal group that is planning for potential effects of the Zika virus, which has been linked to microcephaly. Puerto Rico, in particular, has been affected by the outbreak, King said.
King linked the question about Zika to Flint, Mich., which has faced lead contamination of its drinking water. Lead poisoning is known to cause learning disabilities and behavior challenges. “We know there is going to be a long-term consequence for kids in Flint,” King said, adding that the situation was also the focus of interagency efforts.
Asked what “keeps him up at night,” King mentioned that he attended the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Sept. 24.
Returning to the theme of his speech, he said “in many ways, our country’s values around equality and opportunity are a beacon around the world. But some of the issues we are grappling with are examples of ways we have fallen short of those values from the very beginning.”
He added, “That’s what keeps me up at night, the sense that we have so far to go ... what more can we do to bridge those gaps to ensure that the country is the more perfect union that we could be.”
Photo: John B. King Jr. answers questions at a fall conference of special education leaders.—By Christina A. Samuels
A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.