Special Education In The News: From ESSA to the Varsity Blues

Special Education has been a hot media topic over the past few weeks and for several reasons. This post highlights three topics that are getting a lot of attention, what you should know about them, and where you can find out additional information in order to continue advocating for equitable access to education for all students.

1. The Varsity Blues

Lori Loughlin (or “Aunt Becky from Full House” as that was a trending topic), Felicity Huffman, and the other 48+ people involved in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal have not only created a stir in the headlines of almost every major news company, they have also created significant concern for students with disabilities. According to a recent EdWeek article, students who have disabilities are worried their disabilities will be subject to doubt and their accommodations even more difficult to acquire. A concern of some students is that as a result of the scandal, people may begin viewing accommodations as giving some students an advantage. Accommodations don’t give students a head start; they give students an equal opportunity for achieving success. As a previous high school special education teacher, I watched students overcome fear and the idea of what others would think in order to advocate for themselves and receive accommodations that would provide equal access to the content. It’s important that we call out manipulation of the system without decreasing access to or stigmatizing accommodations.

2. ESSA Waivers

President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds ACT (ESSA) in December 2015. One regulation implemented as part of ESSA limited states to one alternate assessment for students with profound disabilities (the Alternate Assessment aligned with Alternate Academic Achievement Standards or AA-AAAS) and capped “the number of students who can be assessed via the AA-AAAS at one percent of all students tested.” As the 2019 waivers are submitted, we see that most of the ESSA waivers requested from the US Department of Education (ED) are to increase the one percent cap. Thus far, 27 states requested this waiver for one or both of the 2017-2018 & 2018-2019 school years. New York (not included in the 27) made two requests which were both denied: one request to assess students with disabilities in grades 4-8 with an assessment from a lower grade level and a second request to exclude the results of English Language Learners until they have been enrolled in U.S. schools for three years. We can expect to see continued coverage of this topic along with various opinions as state waivers are submitted and denied or approved.

Check out this interactive graphic to see waivers state by state: https://infogram.com/essa-waiver-requests-1h8n6m5zo99v2xo.

3. Equity in IDEA

In 2016, the ED publicized Equity in IDEA, aimed at addressing “a number of issues related to significant disproportionality in the identification, placement, and discipline of students with disabilities based on race or ethnicity.” This ruling was supposed to be enacted this school year (2018-2019 school year); however, in July of 2018, the Trump administration put a two-year delay on this ruling. On March 7, 2019, Judge Tanya Chutkan (U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Columbia) ruled that Equity in IDEA can no longer be delayed. According to disability scoop, “The ruling comes in a case brought by disability advocates last summer after the Trump administration finalized a two-year delay of the rule.” More information on Judge Chutkan’s ruling and Equity in IDEA can be found in this recent EdWeek article.

We know that education and our students are going to be impacted by policy changes and court rulings, but one thing that should always remain the same is the advocacy our students get from teachers. So, advocates for Special Education, students with disabilities, teachers who teach students with disabilities — KEEP ADVOCATING! It is critical that we keep fighting for the rights of students with disabilities and for their voices to be heard.


meghan thompsonMeghan Thompson joined Teach For America in 2008 and began her career in education as a 9th-12th Special Education Teacher in Charlotte, NC. In 2010, she was a member of the founding team at Henderson Collegiate (a school that has ranked in the top 3.5% of all NC public schools for the past 4 years). In 2014, she was a member of the founding team at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and throughout her time at DPBR served as a middle school ELA teacher, middle school math teacher and the Middle School Campus Director.

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