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How's DeVos Handling a Big Special Education Issue? See Bill Cassidy's Answer

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Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos held a roundtable for advocates for children with dyslexia. Also at the meeting was Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., a long-time advocate for dyslexia issues. We called up Cassidy, who's a member of the Senate education committee, to discuss how the meeting went and what approach he sees DeVos taking on dyslexia and other issues.

This week, our colleague Christina Samuels published a story about the anxiety many special education advocates have felt about DeVos' leadership. When we asked Cassidy about whether he shared those concerns before or after the meeting, he said he was focused on dyslexia specifically and praised DeVos' willingness to hear out different ideas.

"I think the fact that she convened the meeting and was so attentive throughout told us volumes," Cassidy said. "It told us that she cares about the issue, that she wants to democratize, if you will, the opportunities for children with dyslexia. She's going to listen."

And by "democratize," Cassidy explained, he meant creating more chances for parents of children with dyslexia to choose better educational options. He'd also like to see the department encourage more screening for dyslexia, and oversee more pilot projects that would track students "in an appropriate way" to see how they respond to various intervention strategies. What's needed, he said, is a change from the current lackluster approach to the one in five children who have learning issues that may include dyslexia.

"It's awful. It's failed our children and our schools. The fact that she is interested in doing something different, I think that is so positive," Cassidy said.

However, Louisiana's senior senator conceded that Senate education committee has "a full plate" right now with health care and other matters, making any push to expand school choice potentially difficult. (Cassidy spearheaded a recent, unsuccessful attempt to overhaul federal health care law.) So far, Congress has declined to fund the public and private school choice programs DeVos has pushed for. But he said the door isn't closed yet.

"I don't think we need to look at this like, they have to get something through in the next six months if they want to succeed," Cassidy said

He was less specific about reauthorizing the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, the main federal special education law. He said he couldn't answer whether he thought there was any chance of reauthorizing IDEA in the near future. The law was last reauthorized in 2004. DeVos made waves during her January confirmation hearing for appearing not to be familiar with requirements in IDEA. 

More Listening, Less Talking for DeVos

Cassidy has been a vocal advocate for issues related to dyslexia. He has spoken publicly and emotionally about his struggles finding the right educational approach for his daughter, who has dyslexia. During negotiations over what became the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, Cassidy pushed unsuccessfully to include flexibility for schools to use federal funds to train teachers in educating students with specific learning disabilities.

And last year, he led a Senate hearing focused on mandatory dyslexia screening in schools, and how dyslexia can be particularly problematic for students from disadvantaged households.  

Another group at the roundtable last week was Decoding Dyslexia, which Edweek's Christina A. Samuels profiled in late 2015 as a growing force in the special education advocacy world. One parent advocate for Decoding Dyslexia's Virginia affiliate, Kristin Kane, was at the DeVos-led roundtable along with Cassidy and others. 

Kane said she was pleased with the meeting overall: "It was more about her listening than her talking." She recalled that DeVos spent the vast majority of her time listening, not talking, during the roundtable, although she remembered DeVos did focus special attention on the student who participated. 

Advocates emphasized to DeVos the importance of appropiate curriculum for those with dyslexia, along with early identification, and teacher training. Kane emphasized to DeVos that many parents of children with dyslexia either don't speak English or don't know how to lobby schools to get their children what they need.

"The level of advocacy required to get appropriate services in schools is quite difficult," Kane said. 

Photo: Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill. Cassidy has been a consistent advocate for dyslexia and related issues in Congress; he met with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last week along with dyslexia advocates to discuss the learning disability during a roundtable. 


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