Advocates for students with disabilities have a full agenda for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, including rolling out long-awaited regulations for educating young children and cracking down on the use of restraints and seclusion as school disciplinary measures.
During his seven-year tenure as the chief executive officer of the 408,000-student Chicago school district, Mr. Duncan was not known for an interest in disability issues, some advocates in the city say. They are critical of his record as the chief of the nation’s third-largest district.
“He’s not been a great supporter of special ed. I don’t think he dislikes special-needs kids; it just wasn’t on his radar screen during the time he was here,” said Rodney D. Estvan, the education outreach coordinator for Access Living, a Chicago advocacy group for people with disabilities.
In a report released in November, Access Living said the Chicago district has reported to the state that only 2 percent of students with disabilities were enrolled in a four-year college a year after graduation.
The figure, based on a sample group of students surveyed in 2007, was drawn from information the district was required to submit on postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities.
The group also points to persistent achievement gaps for students receiving special education services. In 2008, 7 percent of 11th graders in special education met or exceeded state standards in reading, compared with 33 percent of their peers who were not receiving such services.
In addition, the group says that in 2006, Mr. Duncan proposed cutting $26.5 million from the fiscal 2007 school budget for special education. However, after “critical response” from the disability community, about $14 million of the money was restored, Mr. Estvan noted.
“There are some big issues he needs to look at in a serious way on a national level,” Mr. Estvan said, “like achievement and accountability.”
Chicago school officials cite a number of achievements in special education made during Mr. Duncan’s tenure. The percentage of special education students who spend 80 percent or more of their time in regular classrooms rose to about 46 percent from 39 percent, they said.
Also, the district cut the number of vacancies for special education teachers from 439 in September 2003 to 203 in May 2008.
The economic-stimulus bill working its way through Congress also includes billions in spending for special education, an example of the commitment the secretary has made to students with disabilities, said an education department adviser who asked not to be named.
The Obama administration has not yet named candidates for special education positions in the Education Department. National organizations that work in support of students with disabilities already have a long list of priorities for them, however.
Rules for Infants, Toddlers
Kim Hymes, the director of policy and advocacy for the Council for Exceptional Children, said the Arlington, Va.-based group has been waiting for years for the final federal regulations on the education of infants and toddlers with disabilities. Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act deals with early-intervention services, while the Part B rules guide the education of school-age children.
Proposed Part C regulations were released for public comment in 2007 under then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, but the final rules have not been distributed, Ms. Hymes noted.
The CEC, a professional organization of educators who work with students with disabilities and those who are gifted, also would like the Education Department to re-evaluate the “2 percent” testing regulation under the No Child Left Behind Act. The regulation eased some testing rules for students with disabilities when it was released in 2005.
‘2 Percent’ Rule
About 2 percent of all students—equivalent to about 20 percent of students with disabilities—are allowed to be counted as proficient under the federal NCLB law if they pass tests based on modified achievement standards.
The Education Department already allows 1 percent of students with “severe cognitive disabilities” to be counted as proficient even if they take alternative assessments that are below grade level.
Together, the two rules allow roughly 30 percent of students with disabilities to be given tests based on something other than the standards used for general education students. Many groups, like the CEC, believe the regulations may keep too many special education students from gaining access to the general education curriculum.
“We believe there needs to be additional research and support for that particular number. We feel it was a little bit arbitrary,” Ms. Hymes said of the 2 percent regulation. “We definitely want to hold the line on not going back to ignoring this population entirely.”
In the long-controversial area of discipline, several national groups say they want to see an end to schools’ use of seclusion tactics, such as putting disruptive students in “timeout rooms,” and the use of restraints to control children. Such techniques are more commonly used with students with disabilities, the groups say.
Barbara Trader, the executive director of the Washington-based TASH, an advocacy group once known as The Association of the Severely Handicapped, said better training could prevent some teachers from feeling that such techniques are their best option for handling students with behavior problems.
Denise Marshall, the executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a national group based in Towson, Md., agreed.
“There’s been a myth that these kinds of kids need this kind of treatment,” she said. “What the administration can do is focus on positive behavioral supports, on adequate supports for de-escalation, on positive school climates,” she said. “It’s not an overnight fix.”
The Education Department also needs to focus on the idea’s mandate to educate students in the least-restrictive environment consistent with their educational needs, Ms. Trader said.
“We’d really like to see someone who has a track record of understanding that special education is a service, not a place,” she said.
Nancy Reder, the deputy executive director for governmental relations for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said her organization already has had a positive early meeting with Mr. Duncan. The experience was in contrast to working with the Bush administration, which left the group feeling shut out, she said.
At the meeting, which included representatives of other advocacy groups, Mr. Duncan “listened more than he talked,” Ms. Reder said.
“The number-one thing, and Duncan has already done it, is [offer] access,” she said. “We really felt that there was no opportunity to be heard by the previous administration.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Spec. Ed. Advocates Making To-Do List for Duncan