Disability rights groups draw battle lines in NCLB debate

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In the ongoing debate regarding how, or whether, to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, disability rights groups are voicing their opposition to a GOP-led effort to reduce the federal government’s role in education policy, as well as support for a bill sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Cal.) that reaffirms many of the landmark legislation’s key accountability principles.

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No Child Left Behind

When passed with bipartisan support in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) represented the first time that states accepting federal education money were required to show that schools were making progress in achieving educational goals. The law, the most recent incarnation of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007, but has remained in limbo in Congress ever since.

Like most civil rights organizations, disability rights groups have long criticized the NCLB testing standards as too stringent. However, many disability rights groups credit the standards with shining a long overdue light on the poor education services received by students with disabilities in many parts of the country.

In a vote demonstrating how far the Republican Party is distancing itself from the larger federal role for education envisioned by former President George W. Bush, the House of Representatives voted July 19, with no Democratic support, to pass the Student Success Act. This bill would eliminate the requirement that states set annual education goals, set diminished sequestration levels as the baseline for education funding and expand public school vouchers, according to the Huffington Post.

The National Disability Rights Network, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and a multiple disability rights organizations joined a letter sent by 35 civil rights groups, under the umbrella of the Leadership Coalition, condemning the Student Success Act.

“All agree that ESEA must be updated. However, this bill is not an update; it is a rollback. It undermines the core American value of equal opportunity in education embodied in Brown v. Board of Education,” the letter states. “Specifically, it abandons accountability for the achievement and learning gains of subgroups of disadvantaged students who for generations have been harmed by low academic expectations.”

A counter proposal by Rep. Miller failed by a vote of 193-222. This proposal would have retained the requirement that states set annual goals and retains performance standards for all schools, not just the lowest performing schools.

The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, a coalition of more than 100 disability rights groups, sent a letter July 17 to Rep. Miller expressing support for many aspects of his bill.

“Many students with disabilities can achieve grade-level work when given access to high quality instruction, with qualified teachers and instructional support personnel; and appropriate accommodations for both instruction and assessment,” the CCD stated in the letter. “Your amendment will give students with disabilities the opportunity to access the general curriculum and achieve a standard high school diploma.”

The CCD also expressed support for the inclusion of the earlier proposed “Keeping All Students Safe Act” in the Miller proposal. This measure would for the first time place federal limits on the use of restraint and seclusion methods that school administrators can use to prevent students with disabilities from endangering school safety.