Two years ago, the National Center for Learning Disabilities honored Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, of Iowa, for being a champion of the rights of children and adults with learning disabilities.
And earlier this year, the Senate education committee chairman was lauded by the Council for Exceptional Children for working "vigorously to ensure that individuals are not defined by their disabilities, but are instead afforded the same rights and opportunities as every American."
But today, the Iowa senator finds himself losing the support of at least some advocates of students with disabilities because of the bill he introduced last week to dramatically reshape the existing No Child Left Behind law.
In a letter to Harkin and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the top Republican on the Senate education committee and cosponsor of the bill, the National Center for Learning Disabilities said it cannot support Harkin's vision of a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The group picked apart and then urged changes to various provisions in the bill, which would do away with the accountability system supported by groups representing students with disabilities, students learning English, and poor and minority students. Harkin's proposal would replace that with accountability measures for the lowest-performing schools only. That would undo a system that, for the first time, forced schools to look at the achievement, or lack thereof, of students with disabilities and work harder to ensure they studied as much of the typical curriculum as their peers.
"Students with disabilities are not clustered in the bottom-tier schools but are spread throughout our country's schools—urban, rural, and suburban—since disability is part of the human condition and most students attend their neighborhood
schools," wrote James Wendorf, NCLD's executive director.
Instead, the group offered a proposal that would require states and school districts to intervene in all schools where groups of students, including students with disabilities, are not meeting standards and goals. "Without this, we will lose a critical focus on the academic achievement and graduation rate of students with disabilities—many of whom are poor and minority," the letter said.
The group liked that Harkin's bill includes support for the use of response to intervention, limits the use of alternate tests for students with severe cognitive disabilities, and didn't mention another alternate test for students with less-severe disabilities, a form of testing that some states have used far too much, in NCLD's estimation. The group doesn't want Harkin to allow any amendments that would compromise that exclusion.
But regarding RTI and the alternate tests for students with severe cognitive disabilities, NCLD said the bill didn't go far enough.
The group also liked that Harkin incorporated Universal Design for Learning into several parts of the bill, including the promotion of universally designed assessments. Here again, it wants this concept taken further.
Because of the group's past support of Harkin, NCLD's Wendorf said deciding not to support the senator's bill wasn't easy.
"However, we do believe that your bill, if it became law, would significantly limit the learning opportunities and reduce both expectations and academic achievement for our most disadvantaged students—especially those with LD—representing nearly half the students receiving special education in our nation's public schools today."