Was the defunding of special education used to pave the way for school reforms that would eventually take place in the Douglas County, Colorado school district? Was special education sacrificed to make 21st Century Schools?
There’s lots to talk about with this case, but I want to discuss the school district and what was happening there when Drew’s parents filed their case.
If you have already read the specifics surrounding the case, feel free to skip down to Free Market Run Amuck in Douglas County, CO.
I have been wondering about this while reading about the most significant special education case in decades, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. It is being considered by the Supreme Court, and it raises interesting, but complicated, questions.
Parents in this case claim they should be compensated $70,000 for the yearly private school tuition. They believe the public school failed their child. The child called Drew who has autism and ADHD attended public school in Douglas County starting in preschool.
In 4th grade Drew’s behavior worsened. According to the Washington Post:
He was yelling, crying and dropping to the floor. By fourth grade, the problems had become more frequent and severe; he was kicking walls, banging his head and bolting from the classroom. He went to the bathroom on the floor of a “calming room,” and he was able to escape from the school building and run into the street.
The parents felt Drew was not getting the help he needed, so they removed him and placed him in a private school for children with autism. According to the parents he is doing well there and getting help he did not get in public school. He is 17 now.
The primary question in the case is what should parents expect from public schools when it comes to the education of their students with disabilities?
It is strange that after 41 years since the passage of Public Law 94-142 the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) this country has not established meaning surrounding special education.
Free Market Run Amuck in Douglas County, CO.
How does special education fit into pro-privatization changes that have been promoted in Douglas County, Colorado?
In 2013, a glowing article was published in The National Review, by Frederick M. Hess and Max C. Eden, titled “The Most Interesting School District in America?” It is about the drastic school reforms that have taken place there—in Drew’s school district.
The Douglas County School District is trying to do something truly new. An all-Republican school board has created the nation’s first suburban school-voucher program, introduced market-based pay, allowed its teachers’ union contract to expire, and developed a regimen of home-crafted standards and assessments in lieu of the Common Core (which superintendent Liz Celania-Fagen dismisses as the “Common Floor”). Former Reagan secretary of education William Bennett has opined that Douglas County is “trying to do all the good reforms at once.
The school district also boasts 15 charter schools.
One of the first vulnerable areas to defund with school reform is special education, because it is expensive.
It is important to remember that Douglas County was a good school district before all the market-based changes took place. Even The National Review acknowledges this.
Given the advantages of affluence and already-impressive results, superintendent Celania-Fagen and the school board have chosen not to rest on their laurels but to see if they can dramatically raise the bar.
But in 2009, a report “Without Funds, Colorado’s Special Ed Often Can Fall Short” by Karen Augé, in The Denver Post, paints a troubling story when it comes to special education. Drew’s family first filed their case in 2010.
- Children with learning disabilities no longer received special education services.
- They were rerouted into general education classes where they faced teachers with little preparation to serve them.
- The use of restraints and seclusion increased.
- Colorado ranked 51st in state contributions to special education.
Most gripping, the article describes another child who, like Drew, also with autism, once did well in school but also in 4th grade, became out of control “aggressive, even combative.”
From The Denver Post:
For tens of thousands of children, special education offers an opportunity for lives of contribution and achievement. But for others, especially those with profound disabilities, that promise has been marred by a public education system that is inconsistent, stretched to the limit and challenged by children with a confounding array of complex disabilities.
Why did this happen in Douglas County—an affluent district?
It isn’t clear if Drew was in a special or general class. We also don’t know the background of his teacher—whether they were credentialed in special education.
What we do know is that a lot of teachers fled the Douglas County School District. One of the reforms was to push out the teachers’ union.
More specifically, the public school did not do Applied Behavioral Analysis commonly recommended for students with autism or behavioral disorders. Drew’s family was happy his new school provided it.
Yet, any credentialed teacher in the area of autism or emotional and/or behavior disorders should have that preparation. Why weren’t they doing this in the public school?
Now that reforms are in place, look on the district’s website. Here is the Strategic Plan.
Special education is sketchy. The only program highlighted is Response to Intervention (RTI) which is controversial. There are questions as to whether RTI keeps students from obtaining special education services. Students seem to be automatically placed in general education.
Career-technical learning involves project-based learning. If you look for vocational education which Drew gets in private school, the title for the school district’s career-tech program is “This isn’t your Mom & Dad’s Tech Ed.” Well, why wouldn’t Drew’s parents want this kind of career tech? Is it too advanced and far-fetched?
The community has not been keen on the school reforms (“Douglas. County Family Flees Big Brother Reforms in the Colorado Independent).” Many were glad to see the superintendent go after she oversaw the reforms.
From the Douglas County News Press
“Under Superintendent Fagen’s leadership employee morale has plummeted and millions of dollars have been diverted away from the education of students to fund reform initiatives with unknown budgets and little accountability,” said Laura Mutton, president of the Strong Schools Coalition, a nonpartisan organization of parents, students, teachers and community members. “Ideally, the next superintendent of Douglas County School District will address the many concerns of the community and restore trust so the district can move forward in a positive direction for the sake of our students.”
Initiatives that sparked criticism during Fagen’s tenure included the implementation of a new market-based pay system that compensated teachers of in-demand subjects like science and math at a higher rate and measured teacher performance in categories ranging from Highly Effective to Ineffective.
And the new superintendent comes with a background in charter schools, an engineering degree in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science and she worked for 10 years in the high technology industry in project development, project management, education, consulting and practice management!
If the court rules that Drew’s education truly was lacking back in 2010, which by anyone’s guess it probably was, the family will obtain a voucher—a voucher to a private school—one that is not accountable to the public by any means.
And vouchers are exactly what the Douglas County School District seems to be all about now with their market reform—it is exactly what the Republicans and the school reformers wanted even though the people in Douglas county don’t look to be so thrilled.
It is time to rethink school reform and special education. It is time to rethink school reform.
Nancy, your article implies that “Drew” was enrolled in the Douglas County School District at a time when changes were being made in special education, specifically more inclusion without needed help for special ed students. Once again, ideology trumps reality…
After reading the article from the Denver Post, I thought about my situation. I am a collaborative teacher of middle school students. My co-teacher has the spec. ed. training. I’m here to tell you that we are both overwhelmed. Their just isn’t enough time in the day. Most of the spec. ed. kids need one-on-one instruction, some intensively. But when we do that, we are ignoring the rest of the class. And in a class with 12/25 spec. ed. students, well, what do you expect?
I feel for the teachers in that district. What an impossible situation.
I think that the Supreme Court will rule against the family. The judges will realize that a judgement for the plaintiffs will result in massive funding issues. And, they will not want the courts to decide what is an “appropriate” education.
I enjoy your blog.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you for your comment, Bill. Isn’t it strange that you and your co-teacher struggle to do the job, a struggle I thoroughly understand, and more money is poured into reforms that highlight technology?
It will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court does. You may be right.