This spring Congress is expected to take up reauthorization of the nation’s primary education law — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, now known as No Child Left Behind.
In an exclusive interview with Disability Scoop, Alexa Posny — the Department of Education’s top special education official — offers an insider’s take on what students with disabilities can expect and weighs in on academic standards, restraint and seclusion, teacher training, the future of inclusion and more.
Disability Scoop: Already 43 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards which call for students with disabilities to be “challenged to excel within the general curriculum.” Is this reasonable?
Alexa Posny: The goal is to hold everyone to high standards, and that absolutely I believe in. Now, when I think about kids who have significant cognitive disabilities — probably what we refer to as the 1 percent who are taking alternate assessments — they still need to be held to high standards. Will it look the same as kids who are at the same chronological age? The answer is no and it’s part of what we deal with when we work with students with disabilities. They’re receiving special education services and supports because they do not learn in a typical fashion. It does not mean that they can’t learn and that they are not going to learn at the same high level as everyone else.
Disability Scoop: Last year Congress considered a bill to restrict the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Do you believe that federal legislation is needed to address this issue?
Alexa Posny: The bottom line is that there should be no harm that is ever brought to any child. I wish we could count on people to do the right thing, but if that’s not occurring then we may need to legislate.
One of the things that’s already been put into place is we’re collecting data to show how many times a child has been secluded or restrained, so the data will be the first place to take a look at what other things should be done.
Disability Scoop: What can we expect to see in the upcoming ESEA reauthorization? What does it mean when people talk about aligning this law with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA?
Alexa Posny: I think some people are thinking: are these two laws (ESEA and IDEA) going to merge? Alignment of the two does not mean the merger of the two. IDEA will always remain the civil rights protection act for students with disabilities. We need to break down parallel systems.
ESEA has set high standards. Almost 60 percent of students with disabilities are in the general education classroom more than 80 percent of the day, so we have to think about the systemic effects on students with disabilities.
Disability Scoop: Nearly every state is in a budget crunch this year at the same time millions in stimulus funds are running out. What does this mean for special education?
Alexa Posny: The one thing about special ed. is that they (schools) must maintain the same level of funds year after year. The bottom line is they have to continue to ensure FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) and that’s not going to go away.
I know at the beginning when students with disabilities were finally being allowed in the regular school system, there was a feeling in general ed. that we in special ed. were taking away from them. I don’t want that to happen again.
Disability Scoop: Currently teachers who are just beginning their training through alternative programs like Teach for America can be labeled “highly qualified.” Do you believe this is cause for concern?
Alexa Posny: When we think about the teachers working with kids with disabilities, they need to be the most effective, the most highly qualified, the most skilled we have. If you can teach a child with a disability, I’ve always said you can teach any child.
What we’ve got on the other side, is we know that within five to ten years, the majority of our teachers who are special educators are probably going to retire. I believe we’re going to need 40,000 to 50,000 more special educators in the next ten years. That’s a big pool. We need to make sure that the alternative route programs have teachers just as prepared as anyone else.
Disability Scoop: Lately several disability-specific charter schools have popped up. What direction do you think education should be taking with regard to inclusion versus more segregated settings?
Alexa Posny: I would like to have a national dialogue about this. I’ll be honest, when I began to hear about the charter schools that are strictly for students with disabilities, that is not where I was headed at all, so it’s interesting. You always think things are black and white and they never are, especially when we talk about students with disabilities.