Alison Yin/EdSource
Advocates hope to see federal policies that promote inclusion of special education students in general classrooms.

With new leadership headed to the U.S. Department of Education, special education advocates are expecting big changes in policies that affect students with disabilities — including more guidance on distance learning, more funding and broader improvements that can benefit all students.

“(Biden’s election) sends our hearts into elation because we’ve been fighting for these things for years,” said Maureen Burness, a special education consultant and retired co-director of California’s Special Education Task Force. “We feel this is a real opportunity to make positive changes to help students with disabilities.”

Last spring, Biden became one of the first presidential candidates in decades to address special education in his education platform, calling for full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law that guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate education;” investments in special education teacher recruitment, anti-bullying measures and job training for students with disabilities, and funding for colleges to better accommodate students with special needs.

Full federal funding for special education could mean billions of dollars more for California schools. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal government is required to cover 40% of states’ special education costs, but has never achieved that. In the 2018-19 school year, the federal government covered only approximately 8.4% of special education costs in California, leaving the state, counties and school districts to cover the rest, according to an October report by WestEd, a research and consulting firm.

The needs continue to grow, as districts’ special education costs have been steadily rising due in part to the uptick in students with autism and other disabilities that are relatively costly to address.

The most immediate, urgent task for the incoming secretary of education will be to help schools comply with students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) during distance learning, advocates said. IEPs are roadmaps for a student’s unique education needs, created by teachers, parents, therapists and others. Most schools in California remain closed for in-person instruction due to the coronavirus and will likely continue with distance learning at least for a few more months as the virus surges. But virtual classes have been a challenge for students with special needs because assessments, therapy and other services are difficult to provide online.

Outgoing Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in April declined to grant districts special education waivers during the pandemic, which means districts are still required to comply with students’ IEPs regardless of whether campuses are open for in-person instruction.

That’s been a hardship for some special education teachers and administrators, who fear lawsuits from parents if IEPs are disrupted.

“Teachers and administrators feel like they’re under constant pressure. It’s like, ‘No matter how hard I try, am I going to be sued?’” Burness said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. A little flexibility is needed.”

Perhaps the best way to help students with disabilities right now is to look at issues that affect their schools, families and communities — starting with the coronavirus itself, said Jason Willis, director of strategic resource planning and implementation at WestEd, a research and technical assistance firm.

The virus impacts not only school operations, but many aspects of students’ lives that may affect their ability to learn, Willis said. Parents might be ill or out of work, families might not have enough food or be forced to move, household technology might be inadequate, and stress and anxiety might be taking a toll.

In many ways, he said, the virus has revealed how these issues are deeply linked. Schools cannot tackle these challenges alone. They must collaborate with agencies addressing public health, housing, early childhood education and food security, he said.

“Through this crisis, we’ve recognized how so many sectors are dependent on each other,” Willis said.

Taking an even broader perspective, Rorie Fitzpatrick, WestEd’s senior managing director, said that the next secretary of education needs to recognize that a strong special education system — and education generally — is key to the country’s overall success. Nationwide, 7.1 million students — about 14% of overall K-12 enrollment — are in special education. That includes about 800,000 students in California.

“What Covid has made clear is how intertwined education is with our economy. The economy cannot run without education,” she said, noting that millions of parents need their children to be in school, so they can go to work. “We used to say, education is the future of the economy. But we know now that it’s both the future and the now.”

Heather Calomese, California’s newly appointed special education director, also put special education in a larger context — that of disability rights generally. Improving K-12 special education, with more funding and equity and inclusion initiatives, would be a long-term boost for the disabled community, she said.

“We are long overdue for a national conversation on the rights of individuals with disabilities across the country,” Calomese said. “I am inspired to see that the Biden administration is proposing policy changes regarding full participation and equity for individuals with disabilities.”

Another special education priority should be re-authorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, said Elizabeth Kozleski, a professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and an expert on special education. The law was last updated in 2004 and needs to adapt to the Common Core, modern technology and other changes from the past 16 years, she said.

But perhaps the most important special education issue on the federal agenda is equity, she said. Black and Latino students are misdiagnosed or disproportionately enrolled in special education in many districts, not receiving the services they need or missing out on learning with their peers, she said.

“At its heart, special education needs to be fair,” she said. “Schools need to have robust services that benefit all students.”

Data collection is also something that should be improved under the Biden administration, advocates said. A key role of the U.S. Department of Education is collecting data from states on special education and other topics, for the purpose of research, transparency and accountability. The current system is confusing and inefficient, they said, and almost useless from a research perspective. For example, the most recent special education data released by the Department of Education is three years old.

Carolyn Swanson, whose second-grade daughter has Down syndrome and who closely follows special education policy, said changes at the federal level are welcome, but they need to trickle down to the classroom.

“I think of reauthorizing IDEA, making it as relevant as it needs to be for all kids and bringing more money to districts,” said Swanson, who lives in Monterey County. “But so much of special education happens at the ground level. That’s where changes really matter.”

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  1. Renee Frances Webster-Hawkins 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Thank you for this well-written story. Perhaps the most important piece is what Ms.Swanson says. Policy direction must be set and funded at the federal and state level, but the intended actions must happen in every classroom. Otherwise, the equity gap will persist especially for our low-income, Black, Indigenous and People of Color with disabilities. I look forward to your continued reporting on special education services in California.