I attended the AASA (American Association of School Administrators) Conference in New Orleans this week. Alas, it was right after Mardi Gras! Fun city! That the annual conference of superintendents of schools. I believe there were about 2000 attendees.
Why was I invited? After all, I’m a lawyer, not a superintendent. I was invited to speak about my new book, Special Education 2.0—Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law. My session went well (more on that later).

This blog is about something else. It’s about the calls—heard from the main stage— that we need to “defend public education.” Why? “Public education is under attack.”

As I listened to this call–repeated by speakers — I was uncomfortable and question this approach. I wonder if we shouldn’t go more positive. I love public education and want it to succeed. But, I’m not into taking a defensive position.

Instead, as I see it, we need to tell a positive story. How about a different slogan: “Public education is better!” How so? For starters. It’s owned by the community. It builds democracy. It gives children the opportunity to learn with all of their peers in their generation. With improved personalized and proficiency based education, it fosters excellence and equity. For many, it cherishes the community and promotes schooling close to home. For example, students with disabilities who are learning activities of daily living (ADL) skills, can practice near home—on local streets, in local stores, with their neighbors. Students can participate in town sports and other activities. Public education is the backbone of our nation. Let’s tout that reality!

Thus, I was happy to hear the welcoming remarks by Gail Pletnick, the new President of AASA. She seems to agree that we need to go positive.. Please visit http://nce.aasa.org/incoming-aasa-president/. She is the superintendent of the Dystert Unified School District in Arizona. Her 15 minute talk led with a positive, success-oriented message. She showed a wonderful video of successful learning going on in her district. I loved that.

She believes that the positive stories of successes in public schools—need to be told. “Investing in public education is investing in our communities and our country.”
I agree and wish her, and our country, much success.

I just read the New York Times piece, “Have we Lost Sight of the Promise of Public Education.”

AND, it made me realize that it’s time to bring out my piece years ago, “One Radical Idea to Fix Public Schools.” It appeared in many TABs in the Boston area and again in Education News in 2011.

How so? First, the Times piece that has garnered much response, been picked up by Diane Ravitch’s Blog—and here!
The piece argues that the Betsy Devos confirmation and push for vouchers and what’s called “privatization” underscores an erosion of public education. It asserts, “We began moving away from the “public” in public education a long time ago.” The article then traces the history of this trend—starting with the 1960’s desegregation orders—to today’s push for charters, vouchers for private or public schools, and parental choice. It concludes with this, “Democracy works only if those who have the money or the power to opt out of public things choose instead to opt in for the common good.”

Alas, that’s not happening. Now to my piece, “One Radical Idea to Fix Pubic Schools.” My idea was that the only way to “fix” public schools is to close all private schools. Imagine that. In that way, everyone would care because it would be all about OUR children—not just other people’s children. Policies for the good of all children—not separated out by various interest groups— will return to public schools. The piece predicted that within a year, “our schools would be fixed—kids would learn, discipline would be in place, teachers would have time to teach, and the sun would shine upon all of us.”

Check it out! It’s as timely as ever. Let me know what you think.

I am thrilled to report that the book is now for sale.  It was published yesterday and is already on Amazon.  I just ordered my very own copy which should arrive by Saturday.

Please visit Amazon.com, buy the book, Special Education 2.0–Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law.

If you like what you see, please write a review at Amazon.  That will help us get on the path of systemic reform for all students.

Dear readers, friends and colleagues,

 I’m very excited to let you know that…. my newest book, Special Education 2.0—Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law, will be published on February 22.

Stay tuned for more information. The book will be available on Amazon (including Kindle), ed311.com,  and on my website, schoollawpro.com.

Thanks for your continuing interest and support for reforming education–especially special education.

 

Here’s the book’s front cover!

58309253_High Resolution Front Cover.6502075

….and back cover!

 58309253_High Resolution Back Cover.6502075

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazing!  Recently, special education has been on the front pages…. given Betsy DeVos confusion about the IDEA– the special education law, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/speced/2017/01/betsy_devos_faces_sharp_questi.html

Timing is everything!  Now, it’s time for my book — a call for a national conversation for a major fix of our broken special education system!

My new book, Special Education 2.0–Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law  will be published on February 22, 2017.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All means all

I read with great interest (and some concern) the February 4, 2017 The New York Times op-ed by Maggie Hassan, a Democratic senator from New Hampshire, explaining why she won’t vote for Betsy DeVos.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/03/opinion/why-i-wont-vote-for-betsy-devos.html

The op-ed starts off well, echoing deep beliefs I share—that public schools are vital for our nation; a necessary foundation for our democracy; a reverence for schools should be held by public officials.

Focusing on these key basics may raise valid issues about this nominee, who has championed parental choice, often through charters and vouchers, though I haven’t analyzed her beyond the fury coming at her, much from teachers unions, and don’t comment here on that.

About charters and vouchers—they are not the answer because they can’t be scaled fast enough–ever. After almost a quarter of a century in our country (since the early 1990’s), charter schools educate about 3% of US students. A drop in the bucket.  In comparison, special ed educates 13-14% of students. If, as some critics charge, the push for vouchers is simply to enrich private companies, that’s way too cynical for me and I don’t deal with that here.

Now back to Ms. Hassan, who veers off from her opening to highlight her son’s excellent special education public school services, why she wants them to continue, and her belief that they won’t with this nominee.  The pull quote highlights, “My son flourished in the public school system. Trump’s pick will ruin it.”

I am troubled by the use of the word “all” or “every” in this op-ed. Ms. Hassan (and many special education advocates) talks about “all students,” as in having public schools “serving all students…”  Thus she writes, “Ensuring access to public education for every student is an issue that is personal in my family,” and then she writes about her adult son…

As someone devoted to public education and working to reform it, I find this use of little words “all” or “every” troubling. For me, “all” students means focusing on all students–from the most gifted to the most needy and all in between.  That’s what public schools are supposed to be about and that’s why many need to be better than they are.

Instead, here the words “all” or “every” seem to mean that all students with disabilities have the same access to education as all others do.  While not questioning that,  I am troubled by the focus.When I read about people wanting public schools to work well and focusing on how well they work for students with disabilities–I am glad for them, of course–but it seems that the tail is wagging the dog.  The focus on special education students leads us astray and may even inadvertently bolster the push for parental choice, vouchers and charters–for people to leave public schools that are NOT focusing on all students. It’s a vicious circle.

Schools should serve all students with commitment, funds, time, and passion.  A vote for a Secretary of Education should be a vote for all students, as I use that term.

 

 

HMMM. This might be interesting. Maybe you wondered about this, as did I.

As you know, President Trump has nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/31/us/politics/supreme-court-nominee-trump.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=span-ab-top-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

The nomination fight begins. But this post is not about that.

Meanwhile, back at the special education desk, we have an important case before the Supremes right now—Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.  Oral arguments were heard before eight Justices in early January. The question they will (presumably) resolve is:  What level of benefit does a school needs to provide to a student with disabilities in order to meet the FAPE (free appropriate public education) standard in the law?  Or, in legal parlance, will the 1982 Rowley decision be affected, changed, amended, overruled, remain the same?

Without getting into the weeds about Endrew F., here’s the geography quandary.  Did this puzzle you also?

First the facts.

Judge Gorsuch is currently on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Denver, Colorado.  The three-judge panel decision by that Court in Endrew F  was appealed to the Supreme Court and currently before it. Judge Gorsuch was not part of the three-judge panel that heard the case at the 10th Circuit.

Now some questions.

What will the Supremes do?  Will this nomination have an effect on current cases before the Court, such as Endrew F. Will the Supreme Court continue toward a decision with the eight Justices who heard oral argument in early January?  Will the case be withdrawn?  Will the Supreme Court rehear the case so a 9th Justice (Gorsuch or another) can hear it and be part of a decision?  What will happen?

Stay tuned.  Don’t we live in interesting times?

 

What do I think of Betsy DeVos?

As someone who has benefitted from and worked in public education all my life–as a teacher, hearing officer, lawyer, author, student, and parent–and is currently working to transform special education by creating a new law, I am asked this question a lot.   I don’t know much about her and look forward to learning more.

What I know that she has worked as a philanthropist, favoring parental choice through vouchers and charter schools. HMMM. For me the interesting question is, How did we get here?  How did our US public school system reach this point–that an advocate for choice, often out of our schools may become our next Secretary of  Education?

Valerie Strauss’s recent Answer Sheet column, “Democrats reject her, but they helped pave the road to education nominee DeVos” helps me understand what’s going on a bit.  Strauss’s point is that Democrats have paved the road through their recent approaches that now appear to be backfiring. A column worth reading.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/01/21/democrats-reject-her-but-they-helped-pave-the-road-to-education-nominee-devos/?utm_term=.74c1f6043b74

In the special education realm,  I see an analogous situation. Special education has succeeded over the last 40 years in providing access to all students with disabilities to public education. That was a huge victory worth celebrating. Yet, beyond the success, the special education law and system has continued  to grow, morph and become dysfunctional–often ignoring the voices of many educators and parents and often in the face of flawed (or nonexistent) objective data.  My upcoming book, Special Education 2.0–Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law, sets out much of this history and proposes five new directions going forward.

Now, you may ask, what does this have to do with Ms. DeVos.  Good question.  I see a parallel to Ms. Strauss’s recent column. Let me paraphrase from the book.

Among many, many reforms that public schools need–to be excellent for all students–is special education. Since that is the field I know best, let me focus on it here.

Special education needs systemic and radical reform to move beyond its successes  and tweaks over the past 40 years. We need a new law; a new approach. And, to get the movement forward, we need  to start the long-overdue national conversation among all stakeholders to build a better law so public schools, the backbone of this nation, can be equitable and excellent for everyone.

Continuing to avoid the conversation by tweaking special education and growing it– is risky. Avoidance leaves many voices unheard and encourages, even unwittingly, the further splintering of public education. This splintering leads to the growth of schools for the haves (public, private, elite, home, and others) without addressing the needs of the have-nots (students who can’t afford their way out or who nobody wants, in part because they have multiple needs—social, disability, poverty). Also, inadvertently, among many other areas of public education that need systemic and radical reform, not fixing special education may help pave the way for and fuel the current school choice and vouchers push.

Hence, Ms. DeVos. Much is at stake for our schools and children.  We need to hear from all stakeholders in public education, even those with discordant voices. We need to breaks taboos.  As a first step, we need to talk.

QUICK  RESPONSE TO GAO REPORT ABOUT SPECIAL EDUCATION’S ADMINISTRATIVE AND COMPLIANCE BURDENS

February 19, 2016

 

Well, what do you know!

In January 2016, the GAO issued a report about the special education administrative burdens imposed by federal, state and local governments, “SPECIAL EDUCATION—State and Local Imposed  Requirements Complicate Federal Efforts to Reduce Administrative Burdens.”  The GAO studied federal and state/local paperwork and compliance requirements that impede educators from their job—education, and Congress’ attempt to ease them.  The report can be found at http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/674561.pdf.

Of course, it’s good that the paperwork and compliance burdens imposed by laws on educators and schools is getting  yet another public look.   However, and not surprisingly (but interestingly), the GAO found that Congress’ 2014 IDEA efforts toward paperwork reduction—had no effect in the nation’s schools and classrooms. Specifically, Congress created two pilot projects allowing waivers:  one, to have multi-year IEPs, and the other to waive certain paperwork requirements. Neither happened! Nobody used them!

Why, one may ask. The report cites several possible reasons. Here, two of them are highlighted.

First, according to NASDSE (National Association of State Directors of Special Education, Inc), “the application (for the pilot projects) were much too resource-intensive for the potential value they would bring, and implementation of either pilot program would most likely require additional staff that federal funding would not cover.”

We can’t make this stuff up.  The pilot projects required more paper and  more staff members to reduce paper!

Second, the NASSP (National Association of Secondary School Principals) indicated that no members favored the paperwork reduction waivers “in part because the perceived risk of exposing local districts to potential litigation if they were to eliminate any of the requirements that parents have come to expect.” (emphasis added).

Again, we can’t make this stuff up. It’s time for honesty and real solutions. The law created a paperwork and compliance monster in 1975 that continues to grow and morph to this day. Congress needs to fundamentally change that—fundamentally, from the ground up. Band aid attempts to fix it will not work. The only way around it is to end that compliance monster. With finality. With clarity. Not with scary waivers and new paperwork that add new burdens!

While we wait for that to happen (undoubtedly a long, long wait), in the meantime, Congress should affirmatively allow and encourage voluntary agreement options to thrive. One of these was “Procedures Lite,” which we successfully implemented several years ago in Massachusetts until the authorities forced that effort to shut down!  A sad day indeed, as I saw it.

At the very least in any new reauthorization, Congress should state unequivocally that it encourages voluntary parent and  school agreements to work cooperatively and  to waive requirements that they believe impede the planning and education for the child.  To make this work, Congress should assure parties that the law will not impose additional paperwork burdens on them (as described above by NASDSE).   Otherwise, reforms will not spring up, as we learned the hard way in Massachusetts.  We can only hope!

The GAO has shown what so many of us know:  So long as this legal entitlement (for parents and students with disabilities) exists, it is reasonable for schools, and state and local authorities to be reluctant to not dot all I’s and cross all T’s.   The waste of time and effort and loss of trust and collaboration involved in doing all of that means that the education for all children will continue to suffer.

 

 

 

 

Administrators in public schools are well aware of the fact that the Department of Education issues “Dear Colleague” letters on many issues from time to time. While these letters don’t have the force of law, they often create controversy and confusion. One of these, the November 16  Letter about a free appropriate public education, is discussed below.

 

http://www.aasa.org/aasablog.aspx?id=38814&blogid=286

6, “

 

November 16, 2015; Dear colleague” Letter by the US Department of Education about a FAPE: A school attorney’s response

By Miriam Kurtzig Freedman

The seven-page Letter tells educators—presumably, general and special educators—that holding students with disabilities to “rigorous academic standards and high expectations” is a “shared responsibility for all of us,” and that these students should be taught the “same challenging academic content and achievement standards [as] all children in the State”… at the “grade level in which the child is enrolled” TheLetter raises many concerns.

First, it is unclear whether the general education teachers and administrators’ perspective was taken into account.  Their voice and leadership in this “shared responsibility,” especially as most services are provided in general education classrooms, is vital. Two special education Department offices authored this Letter—OSEP (Office of Special Education) and OSERS (Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services). Where is general education’s OESE—Office of Elementary and Secondary Education?  While this Letterpresumes to be about special education, it is also very much about general education.  OESE needs to be at the planning table especially since the Letter urges the same standards for all students “regardless of nature or severity of the disability.”  Without input from general education, this Letter is simply a one-sided approach—like the tail wagging the dog.

Second, while no one disagrees about the importance of holding all students to high standards and expectations, I fear that the Letter downplays the cornerstone of special education law—individualization.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides services to meet eligible students’ unique needs. Yet, this Letter appears to gloss over the reality that, even with similar curricular standards, students’ rate of learning and ability to master skills and concepts will differ, as they are impacted by the nature and severity of their disability.  The concept of “closing the gap” (Letter, at page 5), while prominent in thisLetter, is inconsistent with the IDEA!

Special education focuses on whether students make gains in their areas of need—not on how they measure up against others. For some students with disabilities, the gap between them and their non-disabled peers will widen over time.  That does not mean per se that they are failing to learn, or that their teachers are failing to teach them. Sadly, this Letter leads us to see failure even when students succeed—in direct contrast to the law’s mission and good education practice.

Third, in order to include students with disabilities in general education settings, this Letter favors the use of modifications of assignments, audio and other aids—inadvertently creating a trap for schools. Such methods often bypass the student’s unique needs and entitlement to a FAPE (free appropriate public education). The sad reality is that schools that follow this Letter’s approach may lose at due process hearings and in the courts because the approach can be viewed as a way to get students to “pass” and get “through” school—without providing the individualized benefit the law requires.

In sum, general education teachers and administrators who currently work in our schools need to lead the effort and be at the table to build schools that truly educate all students—from the most needy to the most advanced.  Their input is especially vital now, given the Department’s push for inclusion to occur in general education classrooms.  The Department should aid schools in their efforts to comply with current legal mandates, not divert them to paths that contradict the law.

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman has written six books (including the influential Fixing Special Education) on law and education and has spent her career representing public schools