ESEA, Disability and the Lessons of the Past

As Congress and President Obama once again consider a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), it is critical that we reflect on the lessons of the past in order to better plan for our future.

On April 11, 1965 at the signing of the ESEA, President Lyndon B. Johnson stated, "we rekindle the revolution - - the revolution of the spirit against the tyranny of ignorance." President Johnson included the ESEA as part of his war on poverty, believing that by ensuring a quality education for all children, children would be more likely to attain financial stability in adulthood.

However, forty years later, it is clear that the original intent of the ESEA has still not been met for too many children, especially children with disabilities. Indeed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2014 the poverty rate for adults with disabilities was 28.7% as opposed to 13.6% for non-disabled adults. It is imperative that we demand that all children, including those with disabilities be given access to a high quality education in order to fulfill the original intent of ESEA. To do otherwise would subject people with disabilities to a life of poverty and dependency.

When the ESEA was last reauthorized in 2001, then called the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), it made sweeping changes to education and redefined the role of the federal government in education. It was a controversial, flawed and hotly debated law.

But despite the many limitations of NCLB, it wasn't all bad. The requirement that State and Local Education Agencies report to the public when groups of students fail to make academic progress has been a critical tool for those of us fighting to ensure students with disabilities get the services and supports they need to be successful in school. For the first time, the federal government acknowledged that the American people had a right to know when their children were not succeeding. The law also mandated that the country had a right to demand and expect that State and Local Education Agencies intervene and change their educational practices when students, or groups of students, were not meeting state set academic goals.

It is critical that this requirement remain in the currently debated ESEA reauthorization. Transparency of student achievement data coupled with state and local intervention has yielded surprising and exciting results which demonstrate that ALL students can achieve when we craft sensible legislation. Indeed, nowhere in our education system have the positive effects of this policy been clearer than for students with disabilities.

As a result of the high academic expectation for all students required by NCLB, students with disabilities have made dramatic and critically important academic progress. In 2012, 64% of students with disabilities graduated from high school with a standard diploma as opposed to the 48% of students with disabilities who graduated with a standard high school diploma in 2001. Students with disabilities also made significant gains in their reading and math scores. From 2000 to 2013 students with disabilities in the fourth grade made a 20 point gain in math and a 17 point gain in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress assessments. Students with disabilities in the eighth grade gained 19 points in math from 2000 to 2013 and 7 points in reading from 1998 to 2013 according to the National Center for Education Statistics. High school dropout rates also decreased dramatically. From 2001 to 2012 the dropout rate for students with disabilities decreased by more than 20%.

Students with disabilities are doing better but they still lag behind their peers without disabilities. We must demand that Congress enact a law that includes robust accountability measures. We must ensure that all students, including students with disabilities, become independent, integrated and competitively employed members of society. To do otherwise would ignore the original intent of ESEA, to kindle a "revolution of the spirit against the tyranny of ignorance."