baby steps

City announces broad outlines of a special education overhaul

School officials outlined a plan to change the way city schools serve students with disabilities at a closed-door meeting this morning with special education advocates.

The plan’s first step: Telling schools they have to accept, and “embrace,” students with special needs.

“For too long, educating students with disabilities has meant separating them from their general education peers,” Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said in a statement. “Today we are building on the premise that every school must be able to educate the vast majority of these children.”

That premise represents a badly needed advance for the city schools, according to special education advocates.

“The principles in [the plan] are wonderful, but they’ve been law forever,” said Maggie Moroff, who coordinates the ARISE Coalition but was not speaking on the coalition’s behalf. “The overarching goals are exactly what they ought to be, it’s just that in my mind they’re not so novel.”

In a statement, Laura Rodriguez, the department’s first deputy chancellor in charge of special education, explained that under the plan, schools will get more flexibility to design new programs for students with special needs; will collaborate more with parents; and receive a toolkit to help them improve instruction. They’ll also be held accountable for meeting students’ special education needs, she said.

How any of this will happen is not yet clear. A PowerPoint presentation given this morning offers few details, and Klein and Rodriguez did not offer more, Moroff said.

In the first phase of the plan this fall, about 200 schools will get specialized special education teacher training through 10 Children First Networks, the new unit of organization for how schools get administrative and instructional support. Those schools and networks have not yet been announced. The department told advocates this morning that it has the funds to carry out the plan.

Moroff said she was surprised by the vagueness of the plan revealed this morning, which comes more than six months after Rodriguez was appointed to lead special education reforms. “I sort of thought they were going to have something more fleshed out,” she said.

According to Moroff, the plan hews closely to the recommendations delivered by former DOE executive Garth Harries, who conducted a controversial study of the special education system during his final year at the department. When Harries released his report in July, special education advocates said they were heartened but would reserve judgement until the department announced implementation details.

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:

 

The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.

 

In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news