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.