Advocates for students with disabilities met with Joe Biden’s election as Education Secretary this week to raise concerns about issues ranging from school discipline to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on special education services.
If the Senate confirms the Cabinet role, current Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona could play an important role in special education if advocates fear that many students with disabilities have been left behind during school closings and distance learning.
In any discussion of topics like charter schools after Cardona was announced as Biden’s choice, Cardona’s influence on special education could be far more significant. Biden has pledged to fund the Disability Awareness Act in full within 10 years and has pledged to make civil rights a priority.
In meeting with representatives from dozens of organizations, Cardona “reiterated attendees’ comments that we need to question a deficit mentality and noted that all students have different skills and that their skills improve schools,” according to a summary of the Biden Transition teams. “He himself saw firsthand how schools with different population groups created a culture of community.”
According to the transition team, a number of issues will be discussed at the meeting.
Justice and the COVID-19 Crisis: Families and disability rights organizations have long sounded the alarm whether schools have provided adequate special education services. Those concerns heightened last spring when schools across the country closed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“Participants noted that the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities, particularly in terms of access and equity,” the summary of the meeting read on Tuesday.
Families told Education Week of difficulties getting remote learning apps to work using adaptive technologies like screen readers. They have had difficulty accessing therapies and services that are prescribed in students’ special education plans. And they have raised concerns about the compensation needed to make up for interrupted study time.
School districts have since announced that it is difficult to meet some provisions of the Disability Awareness Act in an unprecedented time for schools. Last year, former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rejected exceptions to the Special Education Act, except in a few cases, and Congress did not approve any comprehensive exceptions from the IDEA.
School Discipline for Students with Disabilities: Federal data shows that students with disabilities are more likely to be disciplined in school than their peers, and that the imbalance is even more pronounced among color students.
Groups like the U.S. Civil Rights Commission have called for the reinstatement of the Obama-era civil rights guidelines on school discipline that were repealed by the Trump administration.
The Trump administration also attempted to shift a federal rule on how districts identify, discipline, or place minority students in special education in restrictive situations. These efforts were later stopped by a judge.
Higher Education: Representatives from the meeting also discussed concerns about access to higher education and job opportunities, the transition team said.
This discussion included topics such as financial support and universal design for students with disabilities.