Magazine article District Administration

Agent for Change: Special Education Needs Are Important to Every District. This Leader Knows about These Needs First Hand and Cherishes the Chance to Achieve Fairness for All Children

Magazine article District Administration

Agent for Change: Special Education Needs Are Important to Every District. This Leader Knows about These Needs First Hand and Cherishes the Chance to Achieve Fairness for All Children

Article excerpt

Special education is an important issue for every school district. Educators have faced two main problems in this area: the challenge of educating students with a wide range of disabilities, and figuring out how to pay for this education.

But soon, the stakes will be raised even higher for three reasons: The groundbreaking Individuals With Disabilities Education Act is up for reauthorization this year; educators are saying that the federal government has never come close to meeting its funding requirements for this act; and others are questioning if educators are too quick to label minorities as learning disabled.

While the final decisions will likely by made by President Bush and Education Secretary Rod Paige, one of the key people in charge of special education at this lime is Stephanie Lee.

Lee is used to being in the trenches fighting for special needs children. She is the mother of a child with Down syndrome. Now Lee, a serious proponent for equality in schools, is the top person in the Office of Special Education Programs for the U.S. Department of Education.

Though she is still new to the post, Lee faces the daunting challenges mentioned earlier.

A Salt Lake City native and political science graduate from American University, Lee was appointed director of the Office of Special Education Programs in February. She will serve as a chief adviser to Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Robert Pasternak and administer programs and projects related to education, training and services for individuals with disabilities.

While Lee has personal experience with special education needs, she has also served as a government affairs representative for the National Down Syndrome Society, working with elected officials and grassroots organizations on policy issues. Lee has also served as a senior staff member for the U.S. Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and has worked on employment and disability legislation for the chairman of the Subcommittee on Employment, Poverty, and Migratory Labor

While Lee is still new to her post, she and others in her office are awaiting the findings of the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education. The 19-member commission is charged with producing a final report in July recommending policies to improve educational performances of students with disabilities.

DA: There are many significant issues in special education today. Some include the reauthorization of 1975's Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, as well as criticism that late identification of special education students could mean they are served too late for maximum improvement. What do you consider the top three problems in special education today?

LEE: The most important focus right now is aligning IDEA and special education with the No Child Left Behind law, and ensuring that what we am doing in special education and in general education mesh so we truly can reach the president's goal of leaving no child behind.

We're reviewing the requirements in IDEA as we gear up for reauthorization to determine if there is any conforming amendments that might be needed, to align special education with general education, and to have more of a seamless accountability system for all students.

The second biggest hurdle or challenge will be the passage of a reauthorization to IDEA that is bipartisan and has widespread support and meets the president's four pillars ... [including] focusing on what works, accountability, improved parental involvement and flexibility. We want the same things for kids with disabilities.

The third big challenge is continuing to work to implement the major changes in 1997 that were very positive for schools, parents and kids. One of the biggest was requiring that students have access to participation and make progress in the general curriculum. …

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