Why Are Poor And Minority Kids So Different Than Special Education Kids?

Is United States Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) gearing up to take away a lot of rights from students with special needs and return decision-making about their education to states and localities?

Of course not, he’s a leading advocate for special education on Capitol Hill.  But given how his proposed rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would leave most school accountability decisions to states and localities (Update: Full text now online here (pdf)) it’s a question worth asking.  After all, like special education students a generation ago the needs of poor and minority students are systematically overlooked by states and local school districts.  You see this in access to resources like curriculum and effective teachers, you see it in the flows of public dollars to schools, and you see it in areas of emphasis.

What’s different for special education students today?  Well, for all of its ongoing problems and friction points the federal “IDEA” special education law is widely credited with a substantial leap forward for students with special needs.  Why?  It established standards and legal recourse when special education students were being shortchanged.  Hasn’t always been pretty and is far from perfect but has resulted in real progress for kids in special education.  The obvious counterfactual is how much progress would have been made for special education students absent IDEA?  I’d argue some, sure, but not as much and not as systemically.

I’m not arguing for an IDEA-like arrangement to address achievement gaps and improve equity.  But I am asking why people who wouldn’t think of gutting IDEA’s rules and accountability requirements because they don’t trust states and localities to address the challenges facing special needs students absent a legislative prod don’t worry about the same problem when we’re talking about a different population of students?

Perhaps states and localities care more about economically disadvantaged kids and ethnic and racial minorities than they do about special education students?  That’s one hypothesis, sure.  But it’s hard find much evidence supporting it.  Or perhaps the policy environment has changed so much in the last few years that it’s a different ballgame.  Again, perhaps, but if that’s true then why are the same small groups of state ed chiefs and governors trotted out again and again as evidence of this paradigm shift?

Here’s Charlie Barone, policy director for Democrats for Education Reform and a former top aide to Rep. George Miller (D-CA), “”Federal law is usually the one place where priority is placed on kids whose needs are overlooked at the state and local level,” Barone said. “It’s not clear that this [Harkin] bill would really do that so much anymore.”

No one is arguing for keeping No Child Left Behind’s accountability provisions fully intact.  But there is a sensible middle ground between the NCLB status quo and a rollback.  Unfortunately consensus seems to be building around the latter. Like special education, we’d be lucky to find ourselves in a place a generation from now where we could say, ‘for all the problems those policies moved the ball forward for underserved students.’ That sort of fitful progress is how things generally unfold in our society.

One Reply to “Why Are Poor And Minority Kids So Different Than Special Education Kids?”

  1. Hi Andrew! I am completely new to your blog, and was directed here by a graduate class I am taking, but I was compelled to comment on your entry here, so please excuse any ignorance of mine in any repetition or comments or assumptions I make about your beliefs.

    At any rate, I wanted to compliment you on the boldness of this post. I, too, am very torn about NCLB for this reason alone. I know that the NAACP, amongst other minority-action groups, question the complete roll-back of NCLB just for the reasons you state. I had never before made the connection between IDEA and the minority focused aspects of NCLB, so I thank you for bringing this connection to the fore, here.

    However, I do struggle with a couple issues. One is just from my experience at my own school. I work at a fairly rich, mostly white high school in New Jersey. We actually have been for the past two years (but not this one) been considered “a school in need of improvement” by NCLB, despite our 98% state-test passing rate. We had made “safe harbor” for many years, but with the more recent enactment of the “sub-categories” for minority and poverty stricken students, we earned our negative designation for under-serving our Latino and low-income families. African-American students are not considered a viable sub-category in our school (I do not believe there are enough of students with this designation in our school to make it one), though, I am told that if they were, they would be underserved, too.

    So, in one way, this information was actually a wake-up call to our school. We learned that we were not the “blue ribbon” bastion we thought we were, and were basically publically shamed for it. For two years we remediated and mea culpa-ed like crazy, and we have finally made safe harbor. But I question how it happened.

    Here is my issue: did we really serve the students we were supposed to? Did our practices really change enough on such a wide scale in two mere years to seriously serve our minority and poverty stricken students, or did our small populations of these students just shift enough for us to pass? There have been other policy changes to our state tests as well, some say to get the state passing numbers up to increase our chances to regain funding lost from NCLB sanctions. It seems to me that, in theory, your argument is totally accurate, but in the larger scheme of the entire package and intent of NCLB, which I personally believe is to simply discredit and dismantle public education by any and all means necessary (like proving public schools don’t serve all kids, but then suggesting charters in their stead, who pick and choose their students in what I consider the new gerrymandering) that these kids will still be underserved, just in different ways.

    Because IDEA was so focused and well-intended, I think that is why it made so many important and wonderful strides for children served by special education services. It was made by an administration with an education commissioner (Richard W Riley) that was a true, lifelong advocate of special students. I believe IDEA came from a purer, more genuine place than NCLB, and that perhaps a law more like IDEA really would be better, though you back off of that idea in your post above, though I am not sure why.

    I am torn about how I feel on your commentary, but commend you for the nuance in which you develop and present it. However, one part of me just can’t get on board with NCLB when to me it seems so widely destructive, even thought it does shine what I see as an almost accidental light on an important issue, but in a superficial way. Thanks again for this post, and I plan to frequent this blog on a more regular basis.

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