ActivismSpecial Needs

getting involved in special education lobbying and advocacy~ESEA re-authorization in 2015?

What if I told you that there might be a bill in Congress this year…a bill that might increase a school’s options when it comes to using restraints and seclusion, and decreased their accountability in doing so? Good, now that I have your attention, keep reading.

Most special needs parents know about IDEA, right? Of course you do. Many of you can even recite components of it. But if I mention ESEA…I usually get blank stares. I am planning another trip to Washington, DC to do some lobbying and I am catching up on my ESEA reading since we have a new House and Senate. First a quick primer or ESEA 101.

What is ESEA?

ESEA was first enacted in 1965 under President Johnson. For decades, no one paid attention to it. In 2002, we all sat up straight and paid attention…because when then President Bush enacted it, the name was changed to NCLB or “No Child Left Behind.” A-ha! I see some light bulbs going off now, right? You know what NCLB is. Ok, good. Now, why am I calling it ESEA and talking about it?

If you remember, NCLB was heavily tied to testing, results, and funding. It also was designed and written to be reauthorized every 5 years. So fast forward five years to 2007 and the reauthorization period. No reauthorization. Most agreed that it needed to be fixed, but no one could agree on what specific changes to make. Fast forward another seven years to 2014, and we are still there. No reauthorization. Again, everyone still agrees that as written, the current ESEA/NCLB stinks, but no one can agree on what changes to make. Add in a beligerent and do-nothing Congress…and that’s where we are.

Changes made to ESEA since 2002

In 2011, the HELP committee of the Senate, Senator Tom Harkin was chairman of, wrote their changes down in reauthorization. Basically the HELP committee makes all the changes, then sends them along to be approved. Anyway, they made their recommendations and were met with lukewarm reaction and that was it.

The two main issues of ESEA that no one will agree upon and hinder progress: monitoring accountability (from schools to states to federal) and….teacher evaluations and how teachers are measured/graded on their performance. I’m not going to delve into these two issues much, as I see valid points on both sides. Yes, I do think we need some type of rating system to get rid of the bad teachers….but there are a lot of great teachers in very poorly performing schools, and they are up against so many challenges that I do not think that their employment should hinge upon their school’s success. Honestly, then NO ONE will teach in the poorer schools. Obviously, it is a complicated issue, and so complicated and heated that here we are 6 years past reauthorization and it hasn’t happened.

ESEA in 2015

So here we are in 2015, why am I bringing this up?

Well, we have an all Republican House and Senate. They now have the votes to get things passed. Traditionally, conservatives and Republicans are not what I would consider “a friend to our cause.” They don’t hate kids with disabilities…they just truly do not get what the average American family is struggling with, day to day, when it comes to these issues. Or, they think that charities and non-profits, not the government, should help. Chances are, if they come up with a bill they like, they can get it passed.

I was in DC to lobby against certain provisions of ESEA in 2012. At that time, there were specifics in the bill that would allow schools greater leeway in using restraints and seclusion, while at the same time, giving them less accountability to do so. When I visited one of my Senators’ offices, and I voiced my concerns over this, I was met with resistance. I was told that Superintendents’ Associations had been in there, lobbying for this, stating that sometimes they need to be able to use restraints and seclusion. (Note to educators: If you need more leeway to lock a kid in an empty room, find a new job, please.)

The last version also weakened graduation requirements for kids with IEPs. In other words, your child with an IEP would get a “less than” version of the diploma. Great for showing around town when looking for a job or applying to college, no? No! How about instead, we give our kids the supports that they need to achieve a regular diploma, instead of lowering the standards?

Why ESEA affects all families and teachers

A long time ago, I read (what I thought then) was a quirky conspiracy theory about the public school system. The strategy is–starve the public school systems financially, so that there is no possible way that they can be successful, and then make the case for privatization to move in. For profit charter schools, cha-ching!

Now that I have lived through four years of Governor Tom Corbett, I believe this as 100% fact, as that is exactly what he has done. He starved our public schools, put the burden on local towns, all the while lining his pockets with donations from corporations who stand to make a lot of money through school privatization. If there isn’t money to be made, then why is Walmart giving donations to 1 out of every 4 American charter schools? Many economists and analysts have predicted that if public funding starts going to private schools, our public school system will become a wasteland…of non-wealthy families and children with disabilities. Those who cannot close that gap and get the additional funding to go to a private school. The wealthy will have their private schools subsidized and get wealthier, and those of us who cannot close the gap, well….too bad, so sad. We cannot let that happen. It’s time, you need to get involved.

Traditionally, conservatives and Republicans favor leaning towards more privatization of public schools. Will there be lots of incentives, maybe even vouchers, in the new ESEA? Or, will ESEA be ignored and not reeauthorized again for 2015? Political analysts are saying that if it doesn’t happen in 2015, look toward 2017 because it will not happen in 2016 due to the election. For our schools, for our school staff, it should be passed. It lets the districts know what the rules are, what the expectations are. Whether we love the new ESEA or hate it, at least we will know what it is. Right now it’s just unsettling for districts and doesn’t allow them to do long range strategic planning, if they don’t know what is coming.

I will continue to share information and legislative alerts as I receive them. Thanks for reading!

Lisa Lightner

Lisa Lightner lives in southeastern Pennsylvania with her husband, two boys and two dogs. When not screaming at her kids in public, she can be found on her special needs parenting blog, where she offers advice, support and fun tips for special needs parents.

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