UPDATE: After Opposition to Initial Nominee, Biden Reportedly Will Choose Miguel Cardona as Ed. Secretary

***UPDATE: Although not yet formally announced, a source familiar with the decision told NPR that President-elect Biden will nominate Miguel Cardona, the head of Connecticut’s public schools, as Education Secretary. Cardona started his career as an elementary school teacher in the school district in Meriden, Connecticut, where he grew up and went to school. He was a principal there for 10 years, and was named principal of the year in 2012. In 2019, after being an assistant superintendent, he became the top education official in the state. Biden told the National Education Association in July 2019 that he would pick an education secretary who was a teacher; with this nomination, he would be delivering on that promise. Read more about Cardona’s background and credentials here. While we can only speculate at this point, we hope that the following letter of opposition from disability advocates and others helped Biden make a different decision.***

A coalition of organizations that represent students with disabilities, their families, and educators sent a letter to President-elect Biden’s transition team last week to express serious concerns about his potential nominee for Secretary of Education, Lily Eskelsen Garcia. 

They write that while serving as president of the National Education Association (NEA) from 2014 through 2020, Eskelsen Garcia “led and oversaw the development of many positions that stood in direct opposition to those taken by parents and parent advocacy organizations in support of children with disabilities,” and that these positions were “detrimental to the success of students with disabilities.”

Lily Eskelsen García (photo credit NEA)
Lily Eskelsen García (credit NEA)

 

Here are a few of the positions mentioned in the letter.

  1. In 2016, the NEA published an article suggesting that inclusion does not prepare students for life after high school, and that following the legal requirement of LRE (placing students with disabilities in the least-restrictive environment) is not always appropriate. This directly opposes one of the core tenets of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which states that every child with a disability must receive their education alongside students without disabilities to the maximum extent possible. In addition, research shows that educating students with disabilities in the general education environment has clear academic, social, and behavioral benefits for all students. 
  2. The NEA believes statewide assessments are over-utilized. Their “2020 Policy Playbook,” which proposes solutions to 27 current issues in education, claims that “high-stakes standardized testing has negative effects on students from all backgrounds, especially those from under-resourced communities, English language learners, children of color, and those with disabilities.” In response, the coalition letter argues that “statewide assessments are the only comparable indicator available to the public demonstrating how all students with disabilities are performing compared to their grade-level peers in multiple grades.” 
  3. The NEA opposes the Every Student Succeeds Act’s 1% cap on the use of alternate assessments. The coalition letter states that “research shows that the vast majority of students with disabilities can and should be achieving at grade-level content standards,” and that the 1% cap — which limits participation in alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS) to about 10% or less of students with disabilities — is appropriate. NEA opposed this cap and fought to open the alternate assessment to more students. The coalition explains that the AA-AAS can have significant negative consequences on students who could otherwise be held to grade-level standards, including being removed from general education, being assigned to segregated classrooms, and being unable to graduate with a regular high school diploma. 
  4. The NEA has failed to act to eliminate seclusion and reduce the use of physical restraint in schools. The U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection shows that most students who are restrained and secluded in school are students with disabilities. In 2014, the NEA supported the Keeping All Students Safe Act, which established national minimum standards to prohibit the use of seclusion and physical restraint in schools, but they failed to support the act under Eskelsen Garcia’s leadership in 2020. The coalition letter reminds us that these are “dangerous practices that continue to cause children trauma, injury, and death.” 

Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, told Newsweek that their “serious concerns about Ms. Eskelsen Garcia’s lack of commitment to equity and inclusion for students with disabilities are based on the policy positions she has taken and defended over the course of her career,” and that “students with disabilities deserve a secretary of education who will see their potential, honor their civil rights, and fight for their full inclusion.” 

Call to Action

Although there isn’t currently a campaign that we as parents can join to express our concern, we encourage you to share the coalition letter with an organization you think might want to get involved. As the letter makes plain, our kids deserve someone in the highest educational post who believes in inclusion of and high standards for students with disabilities. 

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