December 10, 2020

Does Lily Eskelsen García Have It In For Special Needs Kids? I Don’t Think So…But The System Does…

By Bellwether

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If you are someone who thinks empowering low-income Americans with more educational power and choice is a good idea, then there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the prospect of Lily Eskelsen García as United States Secretary of Education and the potential Biden approach to K-12 schools more generally. Both choice itself, including choice through public sector mechanisms like charter schools, and methods for holding schools accountable for performance and sharing information about educational operations and performance transparently with parents and taxpayers seem likely to be under pressure.

But I don’t think the comments Lily Eskelsen García’s made at some DC pay-to-play dinner and awards ceremony are disqualifying. That’s why I had forgotten about this whole thing, but a quick trip in the wayback machine reminded me that I said so at the time:

Disabilities groups were understandably upset because there is a pronounced bias against special education students in many parts of the education world (and society more generally) and people do say things like this more often than you’d think. Except Eskelsen García said afterwards that she misspoke and meant chronically “tardy” and medically as in persistently or chronically, a way it is used in casual conversations.

Nothing has emerged since to show she’s somehow systematically hostile to kids with special needs. As a professional educator she should have been more careful with her language but it seems like she simply misspoke, which anyone who has to speak in public frequently can appreciate.

You can watch the video yourself, here.

This whole thing is being hashed out on social media but it’s noteworthy that even the groups ramping up to go after her potential nomination (for instance this ad in The Wall Street Journal) aren’t highlighting this.

We should discuss her views on holding the system accountable, choice, the role of public sector unions in education, the persistent inequities in education and the role of race and class in those, and a whole host of other issues – including higher ed policy, which is a big part of what the Department of Education does. That’s all fair game.

This remark though, it’s not, as the President-elect might say, a BFD.

About what she said. She has a good point that no one thing is going to fix education and we should stop searching for it.

But public education advocates have a problem at the core of their argument. The basic argument is that public schools serve everyone and do everything and that’s why they should be shielded from the competitive pressures of choice or from measures to hold people or schools accountable and so forth. But it’s simply not true.

For starters, public schools are residentially-based so a more accurate characterization is that they are open to all who can afford to live in particular communities. That’s how millions of Americans exercise choice (ironically both the most reactionary and the most woke amongst them often the most resistant to extending that power to others). Then there are a variety of test-based and other specialized schools. And programs within schools – gifted has long been a de facto segregation strategy in many communities.

So in a technical sense teachers serve whoever shows up in front of them, but that’s not the case at a systemic level at all. And it’s worth noting that special needs students have the worst outcomes of any demographic group, something you don’t hear about enough in the achievement gap conversation.

Which brings us to the ethos, that anyone who has worked long in the field at any level knows well, that some kids are just too hard to reach, not deserving, or whatever else. There are race, class, disability issues tied up there. It bubbles up from time to time but it’s mostly code words and behind doors.

That ethos, it seems to me, and the way it plays out in policy and practice, is far more important to discuss openly than an ill-considered riff at some fancy dinner that doesn’t even seem to say what critics say it does.

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