Voices in Education

“What Greater Investment Can We Make?” Special Education and the Stimulus
Of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that Congress approved in February, nearly $100 billion is targeted to education, including hefty one-time increases of $10 billion and $11.3 billion for IDEA (special education) and Title I (high-poverty), respectively.

This represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in education programs and infrastructure that could dramatically improve teaching and learning for all students. If we don’t blow it, that is.

Last week, a lively Capitol Hill forum addressed the ARRA expenditures for students with disabilities and the challenge of spending this money in a timely and effective way.

Panelists included:
  • Judy Wurtzel, deputy assistant secretary in the US Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development
  • Patty Guard, acting director of USDOE’s Office of Special Education Programs
  • Candace Cortiella, director of the Advocacy Institute
  • Judith Moening, special education director from a district in San Antonio
  • Claire Crane, principal of an elementary school in Lynn, MA.
The panelists highlighted a number of opportunities to improve special education and general education alike by:
  • Scaling up research-based strategies and best practices, especially universal design for learning (UDL), response to intervention (RTI), and positive behavioral supports (PBIS)
  • Investing in professional development that is high-quality and sustained over time
  • Investing in classroom technologies that support a) differentiated learning and instruction and b) progress monitoring so that instruction can be improved “just in time”
  • Pooling resources, where possible, to create integrated support for the entire instructional system.
The panelists also noted many challenges, including the inherent complexities of the funding process, conflicting needs of state and local educational agencies, and lack of understanding of what’s required for systemic change. They called for:
  • Better communication among federal agencies, states, and districts on the intended outcomes, spending guidelines, and reporting requirements for ARRA funds
  • Vigilant tracking of spending decisions made by states and districts
In terms of tracking spending of Stimulus funds, Candace Cortiella highlighted a new service of the Advocacy Institute called IdeaMoneyWatch to track state by state “where the money goes.”

The Tremaine Foundation, a sponsor of the briefing along with the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, also has a helpful site called Smart Money, Wise Choices.

Of particular interest were the remarks of Claire Crane, principal of an elementary principal in Lynn, a high-poverty district near Boston:

"This historic infusion of funds in education will make a difference only if this money is deployed in ways that are thoughtful and well-planned. By thoughtful and well-planned, I’m referring to approaches that are designed from the outset to meet the needs of diverse learners and the teachers who teach them. This is where Universal Design for Learning comes in."

Crane endorsed “school-wide models of UDL through the coordination of IDEA, Title I, and local education funds consistent with regulatory requirements,” and “providing professional development related to UDL, especially around the implementation of inclusive curriculum.”

Crane also applauded Congress’s inclusion of UDL in the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act—for providing funds through grant programs for preservice and inservice training of teachers in UDL practices.

She concluded:

"Let’s make the most of this opportunity. Those learners who today may still be marginalized due to disability, immigrant status, language barriers, and other needs will thank us for being bold and for not squandering this opportunity. They will thank us for giving them a fair and equal opportunity to learn to their full potential. What greater investment could we make?"

About the Author: David Gordon is director of communications at CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology), where he is helping to launch a National Center on Universal Design for Learning. At Harvard University (1999-2004), he edited the award-winning Harvard Education Letter, winning a National Press Club Award for distinguished reporting and analysis of the national board certification program for teachers. Gordon is the editor of A Policy Reader in Universal Design for Learning.