Secretary of Education Rod Paige, launching a presidential commission on special education last week in a year in which the subject likely will grab the education spotlight, made clear that President Bush’s focus on accountability extends to those who teach children with special needs.
“He is committed to the bold proposition that every child can learn,” Mr. Paige told the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education. “This doesn’t mean that, after you siphon off the children who have disabilities; or the children who were never properly taught how to read; or the children who never learned English; or the children who disrupted their classrooms, most of the rest of them can learn.”
The president established the commission in October to study ways to improve special education. He originally asked for a report from the commission by April. But because the funding for the panel came through in the budget process only a few weeks ago, the commission now has until as late as July to produce a final report, Department of Education officials said.
At their first meeting, held Jan. 15 at the Hotel Washington here, the 19 commission members spent the day getting acquainted, hearing from a few members of the public, and setting priorities for the coming months. Each member of the commission will serve on two task forces that will focus on specific issues related to special education.
The categories of the task forces gave advocates who attended the meeting the first clues about the commission’s priorities: accountability, research, finance, personnel preparation, assessment, and systems administration.
Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children, an advocacy group for students with disabilities and gifted students, based in Arlington, Va., said she thought that the task force topics were good, but that a few key issues were left out.
“There was no task force on teaching conditions,” she said. “These teaching conditions affect the quality of education we can provide.”
Ms. Van Kuren said she was struck that the commission lacks a member currently working as a special education teacher. However, many members were former special education teachers who have moved up the ranks and now hold high positions in their state school administrations.
Members of the commission said they would pursue information on areas not covered by a task force.
For example, Katie Harper Wright, a longtime special educator from Illinois who now writes for a weekly newspaper in St. Louis targeted at African-American readers, said she wants answers for why a disproportionate share of black students end up in special education.
“I am very concerned about the overrepresentation of black boys in special education,” Ms. Wright said. “As Secretary Paige said, ‘We want the right kids in special education.’”
Assistant Secretary for Special Education Robert Pasternack, in his remarks to the commission, told members, “We want to move from a culture of compliance to a culture of results.”
Mr. Pasternack cautioned the commission against regarding special education as an issue isolated from general education.
“We are never going to fix special education by only looking at special education,” he said.
Ms. Van Kuren asked the commission members to promise to visit at least five classrooms each to get a frontline view of the problems in special education, something commission members had not planned to do.
Former Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad, the commission’s chairman, said he would check the feasibility and costs of setting up such visits. But Mr. Branstad encouraged commission members to visit schools on their own.
Mr. Branstad, a Republican, said each of the subsequent meetings would be open to the public and feature time for public comment.
Meetings are set for Feb. 25-27 in Houston; March 6 in Denver; March 13 in Des Moines, Iowa; March 20 in San Diego; March 21 in Los Angeles; April 9- 10 in Miami; April 16 in New York City; April 18 in Nashville, Tenn.; and May 30-31 in Washington. The times and locations have not yet been established.
A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2002 edition of Education Week as Paige Tells Commission on Special Education To Issue Report by July