More On President's Commission On Excellence
In Special Education Report:
"A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education
for Children and Their Families"
On July 1, 2002, the President's Commission on Special Education (PCESE) released its report to the President containing recommendations for changes to IDEA (the law and the regulations) during the current reauthorization. Rapid Response Network (RRN) News Briefing #12 listed the Commission's major findings, major recommendations, and some of the specific recommendations based on an available summary of the Report. In this RRN and in upcoming RRN briefings, we will analyze key issues and recommendations contained in the Report, especially those that may be included in bills to reauthorize IDEA. In this RRN Briefing, we mainly discuss the first of the Report's three major recommendations, "Focus on results-not on process."
General Impressions: So far, it does not appear that anyone or any entity is in a big hurry to embrace the Report, neither the U.S. Dept of Education (Robert Pasternack and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, "OSERS") nor the White House. President Bush made some relatively noncommittal remarks in his speech on the 12th anniversary of the ADA , when he said: " I created the Commission on Excellence and Special Education to recommend policies to improve the educational performance of students with disabilities. The Commission provided excellent recommendations in its recent report. And I look forward to working with Congress, and I hope Congress will closely examine those findings when it considers the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act."
This relative silence may be because OSERS and the White House would like to see more sweeping recommendations that include discipline. There are probably other explanations as well, which will become more apparent as the reauthorization process continues and when we see the Administration's bill in the fall. It is not surprising that parent and disability
organizations have not embraced the Report, because, as expected, its recommendations include very significant cutbacks in the rights of children with disabilities and their families.
The first and best thing about the Report is that it does not address the "discipline" issue or make any recommendations with respect to discipline. For this brief reprieve from that issue, we must be grateful! However, the absence of recommendations on discipline by no means signals that the issue is dead. Unfortunately, discipline remains a central issue in this reauthorization and one that potentially can set us back to the days before IDEA was first enacted, at least for significant numbers of children with disabilities. For those of us who can remember, those were the days of widespread exclusion from public schools for children considered disruptive and thereby behavior-disordered, those with emotional disturbance, and those with developmental impairments among other disabilities.
We must maintain our vigilance concerning proposed discipline amendments. We are no longer talking about disciplining children for weapons, bombs, and drugs. We're talking about "disruption" - and identifying children who are "disruptive" entails a highly subjective judgment. In many if not the majority of cases, disruption is more than likely a result of poor teaching and classroom management than of a serious problem with the child. The long arms of what constitutes disruption can be very inclusive, sweeping up children with seizures, children with cerebral palsy who may have uncontrolled movements and vocalizations, children with Tourette Syndrome, children with ADHD, and on and on.
Many RRN participants sent us copies of letters they sent to Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) or to their own congressional representatives, and we appreciate your efforts to communicate the point of view of the parent and disability communities effectively and swiftly.
Since the Commissioners omitted recommendations on discipline, the Report does not give those who want to change the discipline provisions much ammunition. Last year, we saw proposed discipline amendments that would severely cut back the rights of children with disabilities and greatly expand the authority of teachers and school officials to unilaterally remove children considered "disruptive" or who have engaged in other misconduct. These proposals are likely to be reincarnated in an Administration bill or in other Congressional proposals. Therefore, to some, the Report may already be irrelevant
Major recommendations, the three major recommendations in the Report are:
- Focus on results rather than on process
- Embrace a model of prevention rather than a model of failure
- Consider children with disabilities as general education children first.
The third recommendation contains a controversial caveat that special education should not be used as a separate cost system or, as we would restate it, school districts should be allowed to use special education funds to fix regular education problems. But how you serve more children (general education students) with special education funds when special educators are begging for more money for special ed students is a mystery to us. This recommendation calls for "flexibility in the use of all educational funds, including those provided through IDEA...." Perhaps, when it enacted the No Child Left Behind Act last year, Congress should have been braver and appropriated additional funding for the general education reading initiative that Commissioners are now placing in the laps of special education.
For the most part, it is hard to argue with these broad recommendations, although we might wish to change the emphasis. Instead of proposing "focus on results-not on process," we would put it, "focus on results as well as process." We continue to need an orderly, clear, well-defined, and consistent process or set of procedures to lead us to the paradise of good results. As for a model of prevention, isn't that what general education is supposed to be doing or should be doing - addressing children's difficulties so that special education does not become necessary? And finally, we agree that all children should be treated as general education students first, although we do not necessarily agree that this means that special education funds should simply go into a district's general fund.
To a significant extent, IDEA already embraces these principles in both its old and new (IDEA-1997) requirements. With very few exceptions, the Report does not give specific examples of how IDEA and its procedures get in the way of improving results. There is nothing in current law that impedes putting these principles into practice. In fact, many provisions in the law specifically address these principles.
What has become clearer over the last year or two as we have seen new proposals and calls for changes to IDEA is the degree of misunderstanding about the law (innocent or otherwise) and consequent non-compliance. For those who don't see results as an important part of the IEP and a major goal of IDEA, or who believe that a child must fail before receiving special education services, implementation of the law will be far from what it should be. (Incidentally, are proposals to provide better reading programs in lieu of or before referrals for assessments and special education services any less of a "waiting to fail" model? A student has to fail with these interventions before referral for assessments and provision of special education services will be permitted.