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Statement of Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) at the HELP Committee Hearing “ESEA Reauthorization: Meeting the Needs of Special Populations”

As Prepared for Delivery

“I’d like to thank everyone for being here today for our second ESEA hearing in less than 24 hours!  Let no one doubt that a strong reauthorization of this legislation is a top priority of this Committee!

“I appreciate the time my colleagues have devoted to these hearings.  I think they have been tremendously helpful in raising important issues and giving me and my colleagues an opportunity to hear directly from outstanding experts and educators.  Their views are proving immensely valuable as we reauthorize ESEA this year.

“Today, we are going to explore another tremendously important facet of K-12 education -- what we as a country need to be doing to meet the needs of special student populations to ensure that all students have access to a high quality education that prepares them for college or career after graduation. 

“Secretary Duncan has correctly called education “the civil rights issue of our time.”  Our public education system was founded in the 19th century, at a time when, for the most part, only affluent white males were given access to an education.   Over the past century we have taken tremendous steps to change that, and to guarantee that all students, regardless of background, have access to an education that gives them the opportunity to live a successful and fulfilling life.

“However, just being allowed into the classroom isn’t enough.  To be able to reap the real benefits of an education, students must be given the tools and support they need to be successful.  This requires much more from our school systems, our teachers and leaders, and our communities.  For some students, this means providing them with extra tutoring, therapy, or other accommodations that allow them to access the academic material and demonstrate the knowledge they have mastered.  Other students may be struggling to learn English at the same time they are learning math and science, and require additional support to gain the language proficiency they need to learn and perform in the classroom. 

“We also must recognize that students don’t check their home lives at the school door each morning.  Students with unstable home lives require extra stability and support while they are at school to enable them to stay in class and keep up with their peers.  For a student, simple things like accommodations or support from a school counselor can mean the difference between the despair of falling behind and the fulfillment of meeting high expectations.

“This is especially true in the case of students with disabilities.  Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year – students with disabilities are guaranteed the right to a free and appropriate public education, along with the supports and services necessary for success.  More recently, the No Child Left Behind Act has focused on ensuring that students with disabilities have equal access to expectations for high achievement. By holding schools accountable for the success of special populations, including students with disabilities, NCLB established the premise that all students can and should learn. 

“Over the past decade, NCLB has shown that students with disabilities can meet high standards when given the proper instruction.  Before NCLB was enacted in 2000, less than one third of 4th grade students with disabilities scored at the basic level on the NAEP math exam, and only 6 percent were proficient.   By 2007 – just seven years later –  the percentage of students with disabilities scoring at the basic level had doubled to 60 percent, and the number of proficient students had more than tripled to 19 percent.  That is a remarkable record of success!

“However, while this improvement is heartening, an achievement gap still exists between students with disabilities and their peers who do not have disabilities.  The graduation rate for students with disabilities is still just 56 percent, nearly 15 points lower than students who do not have disabilities. 

“As we reauthorize ESEA, we must focus on ways to close this gap.  This means not only continuing to hold schools accountable for the success of students with disabilities, but also investing in the resources for success – for example, training more special education teachers, and providing our general education teachers additional training in how to teach students with disabilities in an integrated classroom.  It also means making investments to ensure that assessments are appropriate and give us valid information on the performance of all students, including students with disabilities. 

“At our hearing today, we will hear not just about students with disabilities, but also other groups of students who face different, but equally important, challenges to their ability to be successful in the classroom.  Migrant students, foster students, homeless students and English language learners all have different needs and require their own set of supports to ensure that they can access the quality education to which they are entitled. 

“While we must be mindful of each student’s unique background and provide them with what they need to be successful, we must never allow ourselves to accept lower expectations for a student because of who they are or where they come from.  At its core, education is about enabling students to do more, not telling them to expect less.

“As we reauthorize ESEA, we must recognize that more and more students come from diverse backgrounds with diverse needs when they enter the classroom.  This challenges our teachers and schools to find ways to teach these students.  However, instead of viewing this diversity as an obstacle or burden, we must begin to look at it as an opportunity.  In our modern world, it is no longer possible to remain isolated in small, homogeneous communities.  The Information Economy puts a premium on being able to communicate and interact with people from diverse backgrounds, and from countries across the globe.  Students who grow up and learn in diverse classrooms enter the world with an understanding and appreciation for people unlike themselves.  Diversity is one attribute that distinguishes America from many others.  It makes us more creative, entrepreneurial, and successful.  It is a strength.  We must ensure that our education system is preparing all students to meet the demands of the 21st century.

“With that I will turn it over to my friend, Senator Enzi for his opening statement.”