The Senate has set Dec. 5 as the hearing date on the nomination of Johnny Collett, a former special education director for Kentucky, who was selected by the Trump administration to lead the federal office of special education and rehabilitative services.
Collett’s nomination was released by the White House Nov. 15. But Congress would have to move quickly if it wants to get Collett installed before the end of this year. Including the day of his nomination hearing, there would be only nine working days left on the Senate calendar in 2017.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stumbled on questions about special education during her confirmation hearing in January, engendering distrust that has yet to dissipate among some groups. In contrast, there does not appear to be any bumps yet on the confirmation path for Collett, who is currently the director of special education outcomes for the Council of Chief State School Officers.
In addition to his previous position as a state special education director, he served on the board of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. He started his career as a high school special education teacher, working eight years in Scott County, Ky., and graduated from the University of Kentucky and from Georgetown College, also in Kentucky.
A number of special education advocates have had kind words to say about him, including Paulette Logsdon, the executive director of the Kentucky Special Parent Involvement Network. In an email to Education Week, she said she was “delighted” about the appointment. Her organization, also known as KY-SPIN, is a federally-funded parent training and information center. Every state has at least one PTI, charged with linking parents with resources to help them support their children with disabilities.
“Some of us at SPIN have worked with him on individual issues, and as parent center staff. This ranges from his work with the State Advisory Panel, to [individualized education program] development, to transition issues. He has always had us at the table when discussing issues regarding parents or children with disabilities,” Logsdon said.
Nancy Reder, who heads government relations for national special education administrators’ group, said Collett “is just a thorough professional, very thoughtful, he has tons of experience at all levels.”
And Chris Minnich, the executive director of CCSSO, said in an interview that Collett’s nomination “is a sign these kids are going to be protected, but also pushed in a way that we set high expectations for these kids,” he said. “I think it’s a really important nomination, and I’m really proud of Johnny for getting it.”
A number of education organizations also released statements when Collett’s nomination was released. A sample of comments:
Deborah Ziegler, the director of policy and advocacy for the Council for Exceptional Children: “We urge the U.S. Senate to swiftly confirm this well-qualified nominee.”
- Gary Myrah, the president of the Council for Administrators of Special Education, a group that represents district-level special education leaders: “We are pleased the president has tapped Mr. Collett, who has worked as a special education teacher and as a leader in the field at the state and national levels. He has a strong understanding of federal laws and responsibilities for educating children, youth, and adults with disabilities.”
Denise Marshall, the executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates: “We are cautiously optimistic about the experience that Mr. Collett brings to the job. We look forward to the nomination process as the Senate vets Mr. Collett and urge great diligence on the part of the Senate to assure that Mr. Collett stands ready to do his part to support the Secretary and assure OSERS fulfills its obligations to students and families.”
- Mimi Corcoran, the president and chief executive officer of the National Center for Learning Disabilities: “We are heartened that throughout his career in education, Collett has worked with students with disabilities and their families, beginning in the classroom as a special education teacher and eventually leading the state of Kentucky as state special education director.”
The hearing will allow us to learn more about what priorities Collett sees for the position. But in an April interview conducted by Oneder, a special education technology company, Collett offered some background information on what he sees as pressing issues for special education. Here’s a portion of his response to a question about the biggest challenge facing the academic success of students with disabilities:
I will call out one challenge that is particularly on my mind lately, and one about which I often speak. I refer to it as the intersection of high expectations and appropriate supports. Here's what I mean. I find that we tend to talk about one or the other of those. For example, we may talk about having high expectations for all students, but we may not extend that conversation to the resources and supports that kids need to be successful. Conversely, we may talk about the resources and supports that kids need, but, at the same time, perpetuate a culture of low expectations for those kids. I contend that conversations that focus on either side of this intersection, without the other, are equally wrongheaded. So, as we think about improving academic achievement and outcomes for students with disabilities, we must talk about both high expectations and appropriate supports. That may seem simple, but I would argue that we may not be as intentional around this as we like to think that we are.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.