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Nominee for Special Education Chief Sticks to Script at Confirmation Hearing

15-Confirmation-Collett-blog.jpgIf Democratic senators were hoping to drive a wedge—or even pry open a little daylight—between U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Johnny Collett, the Trump administration's nominee to head the federal office that oversees special education, that didn't happen Tuesday during Collett's confirmation hearing. 

Senate education committee members asked Collett, a well-respected former special education chief for Kentucky, about a number of hot-button issues, including the education secretary's support for school choice.

One exchange involved students with disabilities who accept vouchers to attend private schools and lose the individual rights that they are guaranteed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This provision in the IDEA has taken on new prominence because of the education secretary's support for private school vouchers.

"Many parents have no idea they are giving up these rights," said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn, citing a recent report from the Government Accountability Office that recommended the Education Department review and correct inaccurate IDEA-related information provided by the states to parents."How would you ensure that the families of students with disabilities have accurate information about losing their IDEA rights when they participate in voucher programs?" Franken asked. 

Said Collett: "I would be very eager and open to talk to the secretary, if confirmed, and talk to whomever has a stake in this to see how the department should respond best to this recommendation." 

Franken responded: "The commitment I would like to hear is that you will do everything to make sure that parents who are getting vouchers to go to a private school understand what their rights are before they exercise the use of that voucher."

The questioning moved on, but Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., reapproached the topic: "What I'm looking for ... is a commitment that if this voucher program is going to go forward, that you all will stand up and insist that private schools at least tell kids that they're losing their civil rights under law if they go there."

Collett responded that he believed the department does not have the authority to require that. 

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asked about disproportionality in identifying minorities for special education, placing them in restrictive settings, or disciplining them. The Education Department is considering delaying a new rule that would require states to take a stricter approach in evaluating whether their districts are disproportionate in those areas.

"Are you going to fight rolling that back?" Murray asked. 

"I will uphold the protections in IDEA," Collett said, adding that it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the Education Department's actions if they're related to Trump administration efforts to cut agency regulations. (The Education Department set off a mini-furor in October after rescinding older guidance.)  

"I would find it appalling if after 15 years, we delay it," said Murray. 

She continued with another point: the Every Student Succeeds Act states that no more than 1 percent of students, equivalent to about 10 percent of students in special education, be allowed to use alternate assessments. These tests are intended for students with the "most significant" cognitive disabilities. The concern among some advocates is that loosening this rule means more students with disabilities will be shifted to less-rigorous coursework, even if they could tackle grade-level content with appropriate supports.

States are asking for waivers from this 1 percent rule, Murray noted. "Will you commit to standing up to the secretary and telling her that waiving this requirement will lower expectations and hurt the future of these children?" Murray asked.

Collett pivoted off that question. "I talk every day about having high expectaions and ensuring appropriate supports for each child, and that includes children with significant cognitive disabilities," he said.

Nothing appears to be standing in the way of Collett's confirmation except a jam-packed Senate calendar. On Thursday, the committee will vote on two other Education Department nnominations: Mick Zais, to be deputy secretary of education, and Jim Blew, to be the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy analysis. 

Photo: Johnny W. Collett, of Georgetown, Ky, at his confirmation hearing for the position of assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.—Tasos Katopodis for Education Week. 

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