ESEA & Students with Learning Disabilities: What You Need to Know

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October 2015

Legislative Updateby NCLD Public Policy & Advocacy team—Lindsay Jones (Director of Public Policy & Advocacy), Kim Hymes (Associate Director of Federal Outreach), Meghan Casey (Policy Research & Advocacy Associate), Lyn Pollard (Parent Advocacy Manager), and Rachel Norman (Public Policy & Advocacy Program Assistant)

After months of debate in Congress about what the future of education should look like, the House and the Senate have begun negotiations in hopes of reaching a final deal that would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

What is ESEA?

ESEA is the largest education law in the nation and was originally passed in 1965. It covers topics such as school accountability and testing, teacher professional development, charter schools, school counseling, and other important programs in schools across the country. But for students with learning disabilities, it means much more.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was the title given to the most recent update of ESEA and it was passed in 2001. When NCLB was passed, it was an important step for students with disabilities. For the first time, NCLB required all students to take a state-wide annual test in grades 3 through 8 and then once again in high school. Many individual states across the nation already were doing this, but NCLB created a nationwide requirement. For the first time, states had to report how a federally defined group of students—including students with disabilities—were doing. This meant that, for the first time, parents and teachers were able to see how students with disabilities were performing compared to all other students.

Why does student performance matter?

NCLB was a win for students with disabilities because it told schools that how students with disabilities perform academically matters! NCLB also requires schools to make changes when too many students fall behind. This type of accountability system is important for a few reasons.

  • First, it ensures that all students—even those who are traditionally underserved, like students with disabilities—are provided the supports they need to graduate ready for college and career.
  • Second, it lets parents and teachers know how students are doing every year, which can lead to conversations about improving instruction and providing interventions or supports.
  • Third, this type of system allows schools to identify achievement gaps among groups of students and focus their efforts to improve achievement.

While there are certainly areas of NCLB that needed to be changed, we must ensure that the law continues to shine a light on student performance and requires schools to provide support.

What Do You Need to Know about the New NCLB?

NCLB was due to be reauthorized or rewritten in 2007. Although Congress has tried to agree on a rewrite many times, this year it has made the most progress.

Senate version: Every Child Achieves Act

In July, the Senate passed its own version of the law—the Every Child Achieves Act—which is a step in the right direction. The Senate’s version maintains some important protections for students with disabilities, such as including students with disabilities in state accountability systems and requiring transparency about how students are faring in school. One of the biggest wins for students with learning disabilities in the Every Child Achieves Act is that it would create a first-of-its-kind Comprehensive Center to help students with disabilities struggling with literacy. The mission of this Center is to provide resources to educators and parents so they can better support and instruct children who are at-risk of not attaining full literacy skills due to a disability, such as dyslexia or other disabilities related to reading, writing, language processing, comprehension, or executive functioning.

But, in general, the bill still lacks adequate protections for students with disabilities. It doesn’t require states or schools to make any changes or provide interventions if data shows that students are falling behind. Students and parents will have no guarantee that schools, districts, and states will work to ensure that all students succeed.

House version: Student Success Act

Also in July, the House was able to muster up just enough votes to pass its version of ESEA, the Student Success Act (also called HR 5). The House’s Student Success Act creates major loopholes that would weaken protections for students with disabilities—including dyslexia—and allow their performance to go unnoticed. This is a bill that the disability community and many education organizations largely opposed.

But parents also seem to agree that it is not acceptable to let the underperformance of students with disabilities go unnoticed or unaddressed. Last month, NCLD conducted a survey of more than 1200 parents and educators on what matters to them in ESEA. The survey revealed that 97% of parents and 93% of educators believe that schools should be held accountable for all students making academic progress. In addition, 98% of parents and 95% of educators believe that schools should be required to find a way to help students who are underperforming. Unfortunately, neither the Senate nor the House bill does enough to assure parents that the needs of all students will be addressed.

What’s Happening Now?

Right now, the House and Senate are in “conference,” which means that each has chosen a few representatives to meet and try to find a compromise between the two bills. During the past several weeks, many organizations have continued to advocate for stronger accountability provisions in hopes that the House and Senate’s compromise will provide more protection for the most vulnerable students.

What’s Next?

This fall, we hope to see the agreement between the House and Senate on ESEA. Once they reach agreement, both the full House and the full Senate will need to independently vote to approve the bill. Only then would the President have a chance to approve or veto it.

However, there are many controversial issues outside of what we have discussed here (e.g., funding and budget issues nationwide) that could delay consideration of ESEA this year. Advocates are hopeful that Congress will see this process through. But whether the new law truly will be an improvement for students with disabilities has yet to be seen.

To help ensure that this new law is written with students with disabilities in mind, visit NCLD’s Action Center and let your Members of Congress know that all students matter.

NCLD Public Policy & Advocacy Team
Lindsay Jones, Director of Public Policy & Advocacy
Kim Hymes, Associate Director of Federal Outreach
Meghan Casey, Policy Research & Advocacy Associate
Lyn Pollard, Parent Advocacy Manager
Rachel Norman, Public Policy & Advocacy Program Assistant

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