School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Archive for the month “May, 2013”

Leveraging Unique Talents

It’s graduation season, a time of celebration as students mark major transitions in their lives, moving onward and upward from high school, college or graduate school. For parents, graduation represents a major milestone on their child’s journey towards independence and adulthood.

But for many parents whose children have autism or other disabilities, graduation is a goal often postponed, sometimes indefinitely or even permanently. Even those fortunate enough to earn a degree often struggle to get and keep a real job for real pay. While we’ve improved access to education for people with disabilities, access to transition services and meaningful employment remains far too elusive. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 21% of all disabled adults participate in the workforce, compared to 70% of their non-disabled counterparts. The numbers for the autism community are particularly troubling; one 2009 study revealed that employment rates for people with autism are among the lowest of all disability groups.

This week, SAP, a German software company, announced plans to help the autism community change its employment odds. The world’s biggest business-management software maker intends to hire people with autism as software testers, programmers and data quality assurance specialists.

“SAP sees a potential competitive advantage to leveraging the unique talents of people with autism, while also helping them to secure meaningful employment,” the company said. SAP will begin its hiring project in Germany, then North America, with the aim of having people with autism make up 1 percent of its 65,000 member workforce by 2020.

To achieve this goal, SAP will partner with Specialisterne, a non-profit that “works to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges through social entrepreneurship, corporate sector engagement and a global change in mind-set.” SAP’s partnership with Specialisterne is the brightest spot thus far¬†in a modest but promising trend of training and employment projects aimed at people with disabilities.

SAP executive board member Luisa Delgado said that SAP and Specialisterne “share the common belief that innovation comes from the ‘edges.’ Only by employing people who think differently and spark innovation will SAP be prepared to handle the challenges of the 21st century.”

Management consultant¬†expert Peter Drucker famously stated that “the task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make weaknesses irrelevant.” SAP and Specialisterne are applying this same principal to people with autism by utilizing their unique strengths while helping them overcome their challenges, so that they can work, contribute to society, and lead meaningful lives with dignity.

Well done.

Beth T. Sigall

May 25, 2013

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Pioneers! O Pioneers!

Two of the nation’s premiere appellate attorneys are leading separate litigation efforts against the California public education system, which, if successful, could dramatically alter the K-12 landscape in the Golden State and beyond.

First, former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olsen of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and the non-profit Students Matter filed a lawsuit last year in Superior (state) Court on behalf of nine California public school students against the state of California, the state department of education, and three separate public schools districts. The groundbreaking lawsuit alleges that California laws governing teacher tenure, teacher dismissal, and “last in/first out” hiring policies too often result in the assignment of ineffective teachers, particularly to low-income students. Plaintiffs claim these hiring and assignment practices lower academic achievement for students, thereby depriving them of their right to “equal opportunity to access quality education” as guaranteed by the California Constitution. The two largest California teachers unions recently intervened as defendants. Trial is set for January 2014.

In a separate effort, appellate attorney Michael Carvin, with the law firm Jones Day, and the Center for Individual Rights filed a lawsuit last month on behalf of ten California teachers against the National Education Association (NEA) and the California Education Association in federal district court in California. The lawsuit challenges the state’s “agency-shop rule,” claiming it violates teachers’ rights of free speech and free assembly because mandatory union dues (up to $1,000 per year) are spent mostly on political activities supporting the Democrat Party.

The Daily Caller’s Paul Bedard writes that a 2012 Supreme Court ruling in Knox v. Service Employees International Union, which restricts how public unions can get money from nonmembers for political uses, may provide a mechanism for striking down the controversial agency-shop rule.

In the Knox case, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that agency-shop rules deserve further scrutiny: “Because a public-sector union takes many positions during collective bargaining that have powerful political and civic consequences, the compulsory fees constitute a form of compelled speech and association that imposes a significant impingement on First Amendment rights.”

Carvin, lead counsel for plaintiff teachers, explains it this way: “Forcing educators to financially support causes that run contrary to their political and policy beliefs violates their First Amendment rights to free expression and association and cannot withstand First Amendment scrutiny.”

These cases taken together tackle long-standing and controversial policy issues surrounding the K-12 system. Both bring to the forefront basic notions of how we think about the teaching profession. Both are worth watching closely.

Beth T. Sigall

May 13, 2013

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