Following an administration-changing election, pundits and experts line up like callers to preseason college football radio shows to throw in their two cents on the direction the new president will go on any number of policy issues.
While the future can change from day to day when it comes to politics, with respect to the incoming Biden administration’s approach to special education, some reasonably certain objectives will likely fill the new education secretary’s agenda. Here’s a look at several “safe bet” items that could be on the U.S. Education Department’s to-do list after January 20.
- Increase federal special education funding. The budgetary reality for districts across the country isn’t great, and, even in good times, full funding for IDEA programs has been a struggle. In campaign materials, the president-elect has promised to “fully fund and enforce [the] IDEA.” Whether that happens depends on Congress, which alone has the “power of the purse” to set funding levels. Special education doesn’t get the press that flashier government spending projects do, but it hits home for many voters in swing districts across the country. As a result, bipartisan support combined with Joe Biden’s politicking skills from his Senate days may tip the scales toward a bigger pot of IDEA dollars going out to schools.
- Enforce the significant disproportionality regulations. Following what was ultimately a failed effort to pull back from Obama-era regulations on disproportionality in the identification, placement, and discipline of students with disabilities based on race or ethnicity, the Trump administration accepted the legality of the rules. However, what gives federal regulations teeth is the extent to which the agency charged with upholding them chooses to initiate enforcement actions. While the disproportionality regs weren’t tops on the current ED’s priority sheet, a Biden administration will likely want to pick up where the Obama team left off with them in late 2016. The key part to the rules involves numbers. As a 2016 ED fact sheet explained, the regulations set a common standard for identifying significant disproportionality that disciplinary actions against districts would focus on.
- Emphasize recruiting and retaining special education teachers. It’s not just money that makes or breaks special education programs, it’s having staff in place to appropriately teach and provide services to students. Biden campaigned on a promise of providing “professional development opportunities to all teachers and paraprofessionals who work with students with disabilities.” Whatever budget Congress puts together, the White House will want a say in how money gets spent. Programs to bring in and keep special ed staff on the job could make the cut.
- Issue guidance on transition planning. Aside from regulating, federal agencies also have sway by providing guidance on how to meet the requirements of federal law. The IDEA requires IEP teams to begin planning for the post-high school life of students with disabilities by age 16. However, the process can start as early as age 14. With the Biden team announcing that it would like to see more students with disabilities “get the continued support they need to complete their post-secondary degree and obtain a good job,” it’s likely that ED will deliver on the president-elect’s push to provide guidance to states and districts. Although guidance doesn’t have the force of law and can’t be used to require districts to take action, it can give staff a way to meet legal requirements. Look for any new transition planning guidance to make a strong policy argument in favor of: 1) starting as early as possible; and 2) connecting students with disabilities to dual enrollment and career and technical education opportunities.
- Publicly support disability inclusion. In the Senate, Joe Biden was a cosponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and in the days following the election, he has spoken of making the “country real” for people with disabilities. One of the priorities Biden has addressed is working with Congress to pass legislation ensuring compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Olmstead v L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999), a case holding that people with disabilities should be in integrated settings when they are medically able to and wish to be. Along similar lines, Biden has also called for students with disabilities to receive their education in the least restrictive environment, as the IDEA requires. Olmstead and the IDEA’s LRE requirements aren’t new, but a presidential push for the country to take them seriously sends the message that special education and people – including students – with disabilities matter.
What ultimately happens in the months and years to come is anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, given the level of campaigning Biden did on disability issues as well as his own well-documented history with stuttering, it’s not unreasonable to expect special education to receive policy priority in the new administration. This could take the form of regulations, guidance, and budget proposals. In any case, it seems likely that we’ll see ample discussion on what the federal government should emphasize on special education – and how it should pay for it – in the near future.
Frank Ferreri, M.A., J.D. writes about education legal issues. He has authored books, pamphlets, and training materials on the IDEA, Section 504, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Connect with Frank on LinkedIn.
To learn more about Thomas Guest and his organization Matchwell, visit wematchwell.com/schools. Thomas Guest is also Co-Founder and Board Chair of the YES Initiative – a youth development organization serving the underserved in Pittsfield, Mass.