Advocates for students with disabilities met with President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for education secretary this week to voice concerns about issues ranging from school discipline to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on special education services.
If confirmed by the Senate to the cabinet role, current Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona could play a significant role in special education at a time when advocates fear that many students with disabilities have been left behind during rolling school closures and remote instruction.
For all of the talk of issues like charter schools after Cardona was announced as Biden’s choice, Cardona’s impact on special education could be much more significant. Biden has pledged to “fully fund” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act within 10 years, and he’s promised to make civil rights a priority.
In the meeting with representatives from dozens of organizations, Cardona “affirmed participants’ comments that we must challenge a deficit mentality, noting that all students have diverse abilities and their abilities make schools better,” according to a summary provided by the Biden transition team. “He himself has seen firsthand how schools with diverse populations created a culture of community.”
Here are a few issues discussed at the meeting, according to the transition team.
Equity and the COVID-19 Crisis: Families and disability rights organizations have long sounded alarms about whether schools have provided adequate special education services. Those concerns went into overdrive last spring when schools around the country closed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“Participants noted the disproportionate effects the pandemic has exacerbated for students with disabilities, particularly around access and equity,” the summary of Tuesday’s meeting said.
Families have told Education Week about struggles to get remote learning apps to work with adaptive technologies, like screen readers. They’ve had difficulties accessing therapies and services mandated in students’ special education plans. And they’ve expressed concern about compensatory services needed to make up for interrupted learning time.
School districts, meanwhile, have said it is difficult to meet some of the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act during an unprecedented time for schools . Last year, former education secretary Betsy DeVos opposed waivers from the special education law except in a few narrow instances, however, and Congress has not authorized sweeping waivers from the IDEA.
School Discipline for Students With Disabilities: Federal data show students with disabilities are disciplined at school at higher rates than their peers, and that imbalance is even more pronounced for students of color.
Groups like the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights have called for the reinstatement of Obama-era civil rights guidance on school discipline, which the Trump administration rescinded.
The Trump administration also sought to delay a federal rule concerning how districts identify minority students for special education, discipline them, or place them in restrictive settings. That effort was later halted by a judge.
Higher Education: Representatives at the meeting also discussed concerns about access to higher education and employment opportunities, the transition team said.
That discussion included topics like financial aid and universal design for students with disabilities.