Blog 15: Public Policy for Special Education


I just read an article called, Public Policy Models and their Usefulness in Public Health: The Stages Model. Our presenter for our special education class this week, once again, was the brilliant Deborah Ziegler. She reminded us more than once how much she found the abovementioned article helpful in understanding public policy.

The public policy article reminded me of the many moving pieces in public policy and how complex it is. The report also caught my attention when it said there are a lot of other applicable models, and sometimes depending on the circumstances, more appropriate than this one.

The article also said that policy isn’t linear, like this model, but somewhat cyclical. The linear fashion of this model was its weakness. After reading it, my favorite part of the article was that casual stories are powerful. Stories help move things along from getting onto the agenda to the decision-making stage. I like stories. I think everyone wants stories. So, this was the easiest part for me to grasp when reading and talking about the ever-complex public policy of special education.

This week I also learned about a quote from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cordozo. He said, The law never is. The law is always about to be.

With Cordozo’s quote in mind, our Connecticut Aspiring Leadership Academy for Special Education cohort learned how to make some sense of public policy processes and how public policy engagement works this week.

So, what is the definition of public policy? Well, a good working definition of public policy is the way policy reforms are planned, designed, implemented, and evaluated.

However, public policy is very complicated. It’s sort of like an amoeba. There are a lot of external pressures trying to penetrate it and then swirling around inside it. Interest groups and myriad other actors are involved in public policy. There are networks, stories, discourse, and narratives shaping policy. The timing has to be right, and, of course, it is all highly politicized.

For example, don’t try to get a new policy passed in the fall. In the fall, the timing is terrible, and the politics are ramped up for the November elections. The fall is not a good time to pick a fight or upset people who the politicians need to vote for them in November.

When fall passes, we need effective leaders to help us push through public policy that is good for public education and special education. One example of this would be reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA was due to be renewed over a decade ago. And it doesn’t look like it will be reauthorized soon either.

So, what would these leaders look like who should be on our special education public policy team? They should be able to create an inspiring vision of the future. And they should be able to inspire and motivate people to engage in that vision. Furthermore, they need to be able to manage the delivery of that vision. And finally, they should be able to coach and build a team around that vision.

In regards to IDEA, that visionary magnetic leader hasn’t appeared yet. Some legislatures are working hard in the House and the Senate to be that kind of leader for our special education students. Still, they have only 127 legislatures out of the 435 in the House to sign on for reauthorizing IDEA. And the Senate is no better. Out of the 100 Senators, only 30 Democrats have signed on. We need at least 60 Senators to sign on to avoid the filibuster. The bill must also be bipartisan, or it won’t work.

Let’s shift gears now to public policy engagement. We’ll begin with finding out about the phases of the public policy lifecycle. First, we have to start by defining what the problem is. And if there is genuinely a problem. If there is a problem, we move next to set the agenda. Then on to policy adoption and implementation. Finally, we evaluate it all and then possibly start over. Remember, though, that many things don’t progress in a linear model as above.

Before problem-solving begins, we must find out if we really have a problem. And then, we have to thoroughly analyze and research solutions that need to be evidenced based. Our instructor, Dr. Ziegler, gave the example of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as a poorly planned policy decision. AYP didn’t have any research backing it up as an excellent evidence-based solution. I pointed out this was another example of a lack of funding handicapping the policy. Lack of funding made it nearly impossible for it to function the way it was intended, or at least hoped to work.

Regarding the agenda, we learned some strategies that included using community organizers, involving public education, getting the media involved, recruiting stakeholders, and building coalitions. This sounded familiar to me because of my background with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). I am a member of the Legislative Political Action Committee (LPAC) and have spent some time as a union organizer.

Policy adoption included issue advocacy strategies, regulatory advocacy, community organizing, and public/private community partnerships. Once again, thanks to my work with the AFT, these things felt familiar to me.

Implementation is very similar to policy adaptation with the addition of litigation. Our instructor told us that if litigation is present, this is a good sign that there is a problem; people care about this issue. It’s something we should spend our time on through policy-making.

Finally, we reach evaluation. And evaluation, policy research, and analysis are strategies to evaluate whether the policy meets its original intents and if there are any unintended outcomes. Suppose the policy is not successful on any level. In that case, evaluation findings can be used during a new problem-solving phase. Then the policy life cycle begins again and continues until an effective policy is created and successfully implemented.

We were once again reminded that life and public policy are rarely linear. The cyclical works much better when one doesn’t wait until the end to evaluate. But instead, use ongoing evaluation to know what’s working and what’s not working sooner rather than later.

In conclusion, from what I learned this week and what I have learned in the field as an educator, union office, and local politician, we can’t just rely on the policy wonks to create policy and move it through the complex maze of Washington D.C. We all have to be involved. We can call our local, state, and national government representatives to help get special education policy created and moved along. We can join associations/organizations and/or donate money to them. We can vote. We can mobilize and help others learn about the issues and vote and donate. We could even run for political office to have a bigger and louder voice in special education public policy. This list, of course, isn’t exhaustive. We can do many more things to help create and push along good public policy.