Special education needs are important to every district. This leader knows about these needs first hand and cherishes the chance to achieve fairness for all children
Special education is an important issue for every school district. Educators have faced two main problems in this area: the challenge of educating students with a wide range of disabilities, and figuring out how to pay for this education.
But soon, the stakes will be raised even higher for three reasons: The groundbreaking Individuals With Disabilities Education Act is up for reauthorization this year; educators are saying that the federal government has never come close to meeting its funding requirements for this act; and others are questioning if educators are too quick to label minorities as learning disabled.
While the final decisions will likely by made by President Bush and Education Secretary Rod Paige, one of the key people in charge of special education at this time is Stephanie Lee.
Lee is used to being in the trenches fighting for special needs children. She is the mother of a child with Down syndrome. Now Lee, a serious proponent for equality in schools, is the top person in the Office of Special Education Programs for the U.S. Department of Education.
Though she is still new to the post, Lee faces the daunting challenges mentioned earlier.
A Salt Lake City native and political science graduate from American University, Lee was appointed director of the Office of Special Education Programs in February. She will serve as a chief adviser to Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Robert Pasternak and administer programs and projects related to education, training and services for individuals with disabilities.
While Lee has personal experience with special education needs, she has also served as a government affairs representative for the National Down Syndrome Society, working with elected officials and grassroots organizations on policy issues. Lee has also served as a senior staff member for the U.S. Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and has worked on employment and disability legislation for the chairman of the Subcommittee on Employment, Poverty, and Migratory Labor.
While Lee is still new to her post, she and others in her office are awaiting the findings of the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education. The 19-member commission is charged with producing a final report in July recommending policies to improve educational performances of students with disabilities.
DA: There are many significant issues in special education today. Some include the reauthorization of 1975's Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, as well as criticism that late identification of special education students could mean they are served too late for maximum improvement. What do you consider the top three problems in special education today?
Lee: The most important focus right now is aligning IDEA and special education with the No Child Left Behind law, and ensuring that what we are doing in special education and in general education mesh so we truly can reach the president's goal of leaving no child behind.
We're reviewing the requirements in IDEA as we gear up for reauthorization to determine if there is any conforming amendments that might be needed, to align special education with general education, and to have more of a seamless accountability system for all students.
The second biggest hurdle or challenge will be the passage of a reauthorization to IDEA that is bipartisan and has widespread support and meets the president's four pillars ... [including] focusing on what works, accountability, improved parental involvement and flexibility. We want the same things for kids with disabilities.
The third big challenge is continuing to work to implement the major changes in 1997 that were very positive for schools, parents and kids. One of the biggest was requiring that students have access to participation and make progress in the general curriculum. There were changes in transition issues to work and post-secondary education and changes in requiring that students with disabilities participate in district-wide and statewide assessments.
But states and school districts are still in the process of figuring out how to do that well. There are implementation issues, and part of what the special education program does is research on what works and to practice efforts to help schools, parents and educators understand how to do these things ... to improve educational outcomes for kids with disabilities.
DA: Separate from the challenges, what are your top goals in your role as director?
Lee: Our efforts are focused on really promoting the move from access to education to [a higher step] of excellence for students with disabilities. And providing support for schools to do that. Improving the transition of students to post-secondary education and to competitive employment is important.
Although we have improved the dropout rate of students with disabilities (from 34.5 percent in 1993-94 school year to 28.9 percent in 1998-99 school year), it's still a very high dropout rate. Not only do we want students to stay in school, we want them to transition to be competitive in employment and/or post-secondary education.
The President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education is reviewing big-picture issues like finance, personnel preparation, research, early intervention. We are looking forward to the commission's recommendations in these areas.
Assistant Secretary Robert Pasternak has also been holding forums across the country. He has heard from thousands of parents, educators, and service providers. The information and suggestions from the forums are now being compiled. By this summer, we'll have some better answers.
DA: Some school administrators across the country are disappointed because they say not enough federal money is funding special education programs. Is this criticism valid?
Lee: The first version of IDEA was called Education of All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975. Prior to that, there were over one million children with disabilities who were excluded from [typical public] schools altogether.
Two landmark Supreme Court decisions in 1971 and 1972 stated that children with disabilities have a right to a free public education granted under the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. These decisions led to passage of the first version of IDEA. IDEA has represented a civil rights statute that ensures children with disabilities are provided that equal opportunity as well as providing grants to states.
When the first law was passed in 1975, they said Congress could appropriate up to 40 percent of the excess cost of educating children with disabilities. [But] the percentage of the federal share was low for many years. It was generally 7 [percent] or 8 percent.
President Bush asked for the single largest increase in special education funding in the current fiscal year 2002. He asked for an increase of $1.3 billion in the Part B (the state grant program) and requested another $1 billion for fiscal year 2003. Part C, which is the infants and toddlers program, has received a $30 million increase this year, and President Bush asked for an additional $20 million for 2003. Special education funding has increased substantially under President Bush. The president understands, I think, that financial support is important to schools.
DA: There are federal regulations that tie into No Child Left Behind, including new reading and math standards. Some administrators say a lot of teacher time goes into individual assessment plans for special education students. They say the plans are focused on results and do not always provide teachers with answers on how to address specific academic problems.
One Minneapolis administrator says, "We should be expecting them to reach the same standards as anyone else." This would mean more time and training for teachers. Should special education children meet the same standards? And how can you ensure special education children are meeting new reading and math standards under the new law?
Lee: My understanding of No Child Left Behind is ... the intent is for all students to be included in the accountability system. Some students with disabilities are going to need accommodations in order to take tests and to learn. For example, a student who is blind will probably need Braille to receive instruction during the school day and be a part of the testing.
There are various accommodations for students with different types of disabilities and that is an Individualized Education Program team decision as to whether or not the student uses accommodations for instruction.
The basic concept is that students with disabilities should be learning the same material. Some students with cognitive disabilities, for instance, will learn at a slower rate and may not learn exactly the same thing, but their education should still be tied to the general education curriculum. [This is] supposed to be going on under IDEA 1997.
No Child Left Behind is addressing the accountability system. Our data shows some fairly wide variations among states ... in terms of requirements of students with disabilities being included in assessments. I think the states are still struggling somewhat in moving toward it.
In some states, according to data from a couple of years ago, 33 percent of students with disabilities were participating in statewide assessments. In other states, 97 percent of students with disabilities were participating in statewide assessments. And part of our role is to help states understand how best to include students in the general curriculum and statewide assessments.
DA: With the final report from the Commission on Excellence in Special Education coming soon, will its recommendations turn into law?
Lee: I think the commission's report will be an important underpinning for the reauthorization. Its work is broader than the reauthorization of IDEA. And Pasternak's idea forums, comments ... that were made, and our review will also play a role.
DA: Pasternak made a speech in March regarding IDEA. He stated that the requirements toward early intervention services in natural environments have raised issues around home-based versus center-based services. How do you feel about early intervention programs for special education students?
Lee: Early intervention programs for students with disabilities are absolutely critical to help them develop and learn to the greatest extent possible. They also have served useful in preventing or making it so that some students end up not needing special education. It's an important area that the commission will be looking at, and I'm interested in hearing what they have to say.
My personal view is that I don't think we would want to set a specific number of children who should receive services, but rather that if students are in need of early intervention, then our goal should be to identify them as early as possible and provide the appropriate services.
DA: Tell us about yourself. How did you get involved in special education?
Lee: I've been involved in public policy development for about 30 years. I worked on Capitol Hill during the '70s and '80s ... specializing in employment and education policy.
Then in 1982, my daughter, Laura, was born. Laura has Down syndrome. So for the past 20 years, I have had a real personal interest. I handled special education legislation before Laura was born, but having her really increased the depth of my understanding.
I became very involved in local school issues and special education and policy issues as well as the typical parent issues. We were lucky in that Laura attended the Resurrection Children's Center (a private school in Virginia), which had been funded as one of the first national model demonstration mainstream preschools.
I always say that if I wanted my child included then I needed to be included. I became involved in supporting the local PTA efforts. ... I got involved in organizing grassroots efforts to changing public policy.
In the special education area, I became involved in building coalitions of parents and educators who wanted to address funding and policy issues.
DA: What approach have you taken to the challenges you encounter in special education policies?
Lee: I take a positive approach. I found ways to work together with the schools regarding my own daughter, and work with the school and state and policy makers to improve special education and other disability policies.
For example, in the early '90s, it came to my attention that the Virginia student-to-teacher ratio for educable mentally retarded students was 17 students to one teacher. For students with other disabilities it was eight-to-one. My approach to the issue was to develop a statewide coalition that included parents, educators and concerned citizens to try to have equitable student-to-teacher ratios. I was working with the Virginia Board of Education, the governor's office, General Assembly members ... and the law was passed in 1992 directing the state Board of Ed to set equitable student-to-teacher ratios. We had the General Assembly approve and the governor sign a $1.1 million budget amendment, [it was to be] $2.2 million the next year, and the third year, $3.3 million.
DA: As director of the special education program, you serve as the primary communication link between the program and constituencies such as parents, professional groups, and organizations of individuals with disabilities. How important is it for you to keep in contact with such groups?
Lee: There was quite a bit of controversy regarding the last reauthorization of IDEA. I was among a few parent leaders that became involved and reached out to organizations representing administrators, teachers, unions, disability advocates and all the interested stakeholders to try to come to some consensus on what the bill should look like. It did result in a bill that had widespread support in 1997.
There is no way we can make progress without involving the the parents, the educators and the lawmakers. And we have a lot of progress we need to make.
Angela Pascopella, email@example.com, is associate features editor.