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When Will We Have a New Federal Special Education Chief? (And Why It Matters)

My colleague Alyson Klein has written about timing of staffing key policy positions at the U.S. Department of Education. Which made me wonder: When might the Trump administration appoint an assistant secretary of the office of special education and rehabilitative services? 

My educated guess, based on the timing of prior appointments, is to look to the summer. But the Trump administration is known for not following in the same path of other presidential administrations—and a long delay in filling this position worries some disability advocates. 

Some background: The office of special education and rehabilitative services, also known as OSERS, is part of the authorizing legislation that created the Education Department almost 40 years ago. (This is in contrast to other offices that were created at the discretion of an administration, such as the "office of early learning" created under the Obama administration, or the "office of innovation and improvement," which was created during President George W. Bush's first term. Both are still around.)

There have been nine assistant secretaries to hold the position since the Education Department was created: Jean Tufts, Madeleine C. Will, Robert R. Davila, Judith Heumann, Robert H. Pasternack, John H. Hager, Tracy R. Justesen, Alexa E. Posny, and Michael K. Yudin

Of those officials, four were appointed during a president's first term:

  • Tufts, the first OSERS chief, was nominated in July of 1981, during Ronald Reagan's first term. She was confirmed in October.
  • Heumann was nominated in April 1993, during Bill Clinton's first term. She was confirmed in June. 
  • Pasternack was nominated in June 2001, during George W. Bush's first term. He was confirmed in July. 
  • Posny was nominated in July 2009, during Barack Obama's first term. She was confirmed in October. 

Based on this history, it would not be unusual to see the office vacant for at least a few more months before an assistant secretary is confirmed. When Trump was sworn in, Ruth Ryder, who has been working in various capacities in the federal special education department since 1988, was "delegated the authority" to serve as the assistant secretary of OSERS until an appointment is made.

Why an OSERS Chief Matters

Representatives of special education and disability advocacy groups that I interviewed aren't worried about the competence of the career staff who are managing the department. But they are worried about what they're hearing from the Trump administration and from department leadership.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faced sharp questioning about special education during her confirmation hearing and seemed unfamiliar with policy, raising the ire of many parents of children with disabilities.

In recent days, the president has said he wants to make billions of dollars in domestic spending cuts. Without a political supporter in the Education Department, advocates fear special education funding could be on the chopping block, along with other programs.

"A $54 billion increase in defense spending has to come from somewhere," said Katherine Beh Neas, the vice president for government relations for the Easterseals office of public affairs (The advocacy organization was formerly known as "Easter Seals." ) "If you don't have a political person in place advocating for the political part of the functions of that department, it leaves the department at risk."

IDEA funding isn't the only issue of concern. Congress is moving to scrap the accountability rules under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which offer some significant provisions relating to students with disabilities. The Council for Exceptional Children is just one of several organizations that has rallied its members to fight any changes on ESSA regulations.

That's another reason to have a political person in place, said Deborah Ziegler, the director of policy and advocacy for CEC.

"We want to have someone who is nominated and appointed in the assistant secretary position of OSERS to be someone who is well-qualified around the field of special education and children and young adults with disabilities," she said. "The leadership that office provides has been very influential." 

And then there is the fact that the timing of an appointment would offer a signal of the administration's priorities. DeVos has spent much of her early time in office demonstrating her commitment to school choice, which is a clear interest of the administration. But well over 90 perecent of students covered under the IDEA are enrolled in public schools. So what does the administration have planned for public schools and special education? Advocates say they haven't gotten a clear view on that yet. 

"When the secretary calls his or her cabinet together in any administration, you want to have someone sitting at the table with expertise in special education," Ziegler said. "In our future correspondence with the secretary, we will be articulating that. And all of us are hoping we will get an opportunity to sit down with her."


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