Op-Ed: Audacity of Hope for Poor, Minority and Disabled Schoolchildren

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As we wait for the new administration to take office, we ask, “What changes are needed to ‘close the gap’ between children who are traditionally left behind – poor kids, minorities, and kids with disabilities – and children who are more fortunate?” “How can we improve the education of children with disabilities?”

In Audacity of Hope for Poor, Minority and Disabled Schoolchildren, advocate Kalman Hettleman offers predictions and ideas about what the future will bring. We invite you to share your ideas too!

Will President-elect Obama bring hope and change for the nation’s poor and minority schoolchildren?

I rang doorbells and made phone calls for Barack Obama in the general and primary elections. I believe he will offer bold change in foreign and domestic policy and transform the mean spirit of American politics. But I’m less sure that he can redeem the dream of equal educational opportunity for poor schoolchildren – at least, not any time soon.

One obvious reason is other, higher national priorities. Less obvious but more inhibiting, however, is the absence of a policy or political mandate for school reform. Educators and politicians alike are divided on what it will take to close the achievement gap that separates low-income children of color from the American mainstream.

Because of this uncertainty, despite the many sharp differences between them, Mr. Obama and Sen. John McCain said and differed little on school policy. Both gave vague support to the No Child Left Behind Act. Beyond that, Mr. McCain recited the conservative mantra about charter schools and vouchers as the saviors of public education, while Mr. Obama mainly toed the liberal line on the need for more federal funds.

Otherwise, the president-elect walked a tightrope, swaying to and fro over controversial measures such as merit pay for teachers, tougher discipline of unsatisfactory teachers, and vouchers. He avoided altogether a glaring defect in NCLB: Instead of prescribing one set of national standards and tests, it allows each state to set its own. This has set off a “race to the bottom” as states have dumbed down standards and tests to avoid penalties under NCLB.

His indecision reflects the ideological “education wars.” Liberals and conservatives battle. Worse, liberal Democrats are at war with themselves. One camp, mostly so-called education progressives, wants to annihilate NCLB. They are spearheaded by the powerful national teachers unions. These liberals, ironically, are aligned with Republicans in their opposition to federal intrusion on local control of public schools.

On the other side are liberals who see local control as an anachronism that protects the status quo. They want to “mend, not end” NCLB and are willing to challenge the teachers unions and other pillars of the education establishment, including teacher colleges and state and local education departments. These liberals include the leading Democratic congressional heavyweights on education, and so reauthorization of NCLB is now a virtual certainty.

But that’s not nearly good enough.

NCLB will get a new name but not a new structure. States will remain free to go soft on standards, tests and sanctions. Equally important, states as a whole will continue to make a mockery of the civil right of all children to adequate funding to enable them to meet high standards. At best, given the economic crisis, Mr. Obama will be able to only slightly increase funding.

What will be missing is what I call a “new education federalism.” States have never delivered on the rights of minorities and poor people, and the federal government has had to step in. That must now happen to fulfill the right to equal educational opportunity.

The federal government must become the guarantor of high standards and adequate funding. It must also elevate education research and development so that the money is spent cost-effectively. The feds would spell out only what students are entitled to; states and local school systems would still dictate how the money is spent and the children are taught.

Such a new education federalism is the truly audacious hope for America’s poor schoolchildren. And Mr. Obama could become the nation’s educator in chief and pull it off. But it would take political capital that realistically will not be available in the immediate future.

So here’s my forecast for the climate of national education policy: mild progress over the next two years, including reauthorization of No Child Left Behind and drops of additional federal funds. Then bigger changes will stir.

President Obama will devise a “third way” that links much larger increases in federal funds to state adoption of national standards and tests and other reforms.

It may take a second term, but a full federal guarantee of adequate funding is within the realm of possibility.

That’s the hope – and that’s the imperative for our country’s future.

About the Author: Kalman Hettleman has written extensively about kids with disabilities. He wrote The Invisible Dyslexics and The Road to Nowhere: The Illusion and Broken Promises of Special Education in the Baltimore City and Other Public School Systems. While The Road to Nowhere describes the failure of Baltimore Public Schools to educate children with disabilities, this article describes challenges and obstacles in school districts around the country.

Mr. Hettleman is a former state Human Resources Secretary and former member of the Baltimore School Board. You can contact him with your comments. His e-mail is khettleman@comcast.net

Or you can respond by leaving a comment on the Wrightslaw Way blog (below).

Audacity of Hope for Poor School Children was originally published in the Baltimore Sun on November 19, 2008.

URL: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bal-op.schools19nov19,0,2968991.story

  1. I need help!!!
    I work in NJ as a third grade regular ed teacher. Currently I have 10 classified student in a class of 22. I need to know if this is legal and where I can get information regarding this issue. I am not special ed certified.
    Any help would be appreciated.

    • Debbie: Student ratios are determined by state departments of education. Check your state’s education regulations or contact your state dept of ed for the answer to your question.

  2. My son’s middle school psychologist’s told me in the ARD meeting that it is “unrealistic to expect my son to close the gap” that he is 1 to 2 years behind and that “a child like him will never be at par with his peers and that gap will only get bigger and bigger” and that I “needed to accept reality.”

    So I am very interested in what the administration will do to make schools close the gap since my son’s school has completely written off kids with disabilities.

  3. I am hopeful that special education is getting ready to align with what the IDEA intended back in 1976.

    The notion that only poor minorities are the ones struggling in our system is a myth.

    My wife is an honors graduate of a prestigious college, she is a certified teacher in our premier school district, and we are a middle-upper class Caucasian family.

    My son has a diagnosis of Aspergers Autism and was blatantly denied a FAPE. The premier school district even had their attorney document this in Prior Written Notice in black in white.

    This site is a great place for all of us to compare notes, share experiences and come together to start a movement of change.

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