ESSA and Special Education: the Spectrum of Hopes and Fears of a Parent Advocate

Photo credit: Scratch Ed

Photo credit: Scratch Ed

By Chioma Oruh, Ph.D. Inclusive Prosperity Coalition

We are only half-way through 2017 and already, this year has proven to be groundbreaking in regards to Local and Federal policies regarding delivery of care education services for students with disabilities.  From the landmarks Supreme Court ruling in the March 2017 Endrews F. v Douglass County School District, which ruled in favor of academically challenging individual education plans (IEP) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) revised in 2004, to the June 2017 District Court of Appeals ruling in the D.L. v District of Columbia that upholds a 2011 ruling in favor of the plaintiff and holding the District of Columbia responsible for meeting detailed guidelines to improve upon the Child Find policies for children between the vulnerable ages of 2 years 8 months and 5 years 10 months transitioning into Pre-Kindergarten.

As I write this, today is the first of a three-day Leadership Conference by the US Department of Education's Office of Special Education in Arlington, VA, where Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and other notable speakers and presenters will speak in depth on the future of special education with consideration to the changing Federal and State education guidelines. Indeed, these are critical times.

As a resident of the District of Columbia, of which we hold no voting representation in Congress due to not being a recognized state in the Union, our system of organization to carry out education policies is unique and, at times, dysfunctional.  And when it comes to special education, or general issues impacting the rights of individuals with disabilities, the District as a whole and our education system holds deep-rooted cultural biases that inform, and thus limit, progressive policies and practices that could more positively and comprehensively improve the quality of life for those directly impacted of all ages and their families.

Beyond being a city-state tasked to carryout mandates that the other 50 autonomous and represented state structures are equally (not equitably) tasked with, we also experiencing growing pains that challenge the systemic intelligence around how our local government manages and integrates care for individuals with disabilities of all ages, with children and youth being the age groups most impacted specifically by educational policies.  

The combination of a less-than-desirable state system motivated by forces beyond our control (i.e. no taxation without representation) and a difficult learning curve that requires political will of gigantic proportions to change these deep-rooted cultural biases that inform policies, this combination produces both opportunity and despondency in a parent advocate such as myself.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which is the Obama administration’s articulation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESCA), was signed into law on December 10, 2015 and in many ways improves on the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002.

 In a speech delivered at the 2011 annual meeting for the American Association for People with Disabilities, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan credited the NCLB for its groundbreaking policy, making it impossible for “Americans [to] no longer ignore insidious achievement gaps [for students with disabilities].”[1] With the school year 2017-18 being the first school year that ESSA takes full effect, it is too early to evaluate any of the areas of improvements to the NCLB, which most notably includes more autonomy for states (and the District of Columbia) in determining how this law is implemented, monitored and measured.  Yet, there are articulations within ESSA that show promising signs that is aligned to champion the rights of children with disabilities while at the same time not being heavy-handed in imposing on states how to achieve greater performance outcomes.

As a parent of two young children with autism, with my youngest still in Pre-Kindergarten, I am encouraged by what I understand to be areas of progressive change to the Federal education policy guidelines in ESSA.  For one, ESSA now requires states to involve the public and representatives of a wide range of the education community as state officials put together accountability plans due of either April 1, 2017 or September 18, 2017.  For the April 1st deadline, fifteen states and the District of Columbia submitted the plans to their governors (or in the District’s case, to Mayor Muriel Bowser) - who in turn submits it to the US Department of Education. Another critical aspect of ESSA is the establishment of “comprehensive center on students at risk of not attaining full literacy skills due to a disability,”[2] which includes a wide variety of disabilities.

While ESSA seeks to transform some of the restrictive policies that limited state’s rights to self-determine their education policies, the IDEA is still the leading legislation that guides in regards to protecting the educational rights of children with disabilities. Similar to the NCLB, ESSA will continue to honor a system that requires states to submit separate performance reports on state tests for students with disabilities, which must still be administered in grades 3-8 and once again in high school.[3] ESSA is also said to place a 1% cap (which equates to 10% of students with disabilities) on the percentage of all students who can take alternate assessments in order to accommodate for students with severe cognitive developmental delays or disabilities.[4]

As noted earlier, the verdict is still out on what this all will mean for education outcomes but as a parent advocate for children with disabilities (including but not limited to my own), I am hopeful that ESSA coupled with the rulings in the Endrews and the D.L. cases will put the necessary pressure on the District’s Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE), which is our state education agency (SEA) given authority to monitory the performance and implementation of the ESSA state policies of the 65 local school agencies (LEA) for the District’s public charter schools plus the District of Columbia Public Schools (DPCS).

And even with all this optimism, I am still weary that we have not overcome some of the unconscious biases that influence discrimination against individuals with disabilities and unless there is also some attention given to overturning this culture of violence and silence for some of our most vulnerable citizens that have suffered such cruel behavior as noted in another landmark case Evans v District of Columbia that led to the closing of institutions such as Forest Haven.

As a parent, I am still subject to people’s judgement against my parenting and the perceived maladaptive behaviors of my children with autism. I know firsthand the ugliness of those who would otherwise like nothing more than to see my children disappear or be put away due to different ways they express themselves in the world. I am aware that bullying is very real issue for children with disabilities and that our schools have not offered a program that gives me much comfort that my children will not be a target. I know that the unauthorized use of forceful restraint methods on school premises either by school employees or invited law enforcement officers remains a huge problem, as noted in a recent report led by the University Legal Services of the District of Columbia. And I know that so many other parents share these concerns for legitimate reasons.

Additionally because the District is not a State, the unclearly defined roles of our State Board of Education, Public Charter School Board and even those of the Superintendent Hanseul Kang and the Chancellor of DCPS Antwan Wilson, remain vague and lack transparency, particularly in regards to special education services and the rights of students (and their parent/community advocates) with disabilities. Until these issues are addressed and clarified with more rigor and commitment both Federally and through District policies, my optimism will be remain tempered by my fears.