On Nov. 8, Fairfax voters will choose three candidates to fill countywide “at large’’ seats on the school board. Seven people are running for those spots, and The Washington Post is publishing brief profiles of each of them.
Republican-endorsed candidate Sheree Brown-Kaplan has two children with disabilities and more than five years’ experience advocating for special-needs students in Fairfax and around Virginia.
Sheree Brown-Kaplan says she is running to “ensure that at least one school board member understands special education and special-needs students.”
At a recent school board candidate forum, the moderator asked whether kids with dyslexia should receive special services.
The candidates answered more or less unanimously: Yes.
But only Brown-Kaplan appeared to connect the question to an underlying debate about Fairfax schools’ policy of not recognizing dyslexia as a disability deserving of federally mandated services.
“Tons of parents” have complained about the policy, said Brown-Kaplan, and many have paid out of pocket for interventions they feel their children should be getting at school. But the controversy remains little-known outside the circle of affected families.
“It is a great fear among parents of students with disabilities that their concerns will not be understood and that the needs of students with disabilities will not be appropriately addressed,” she says.
More than 24,000 Fairfax students — have an identified disability. The issues their parents face are often tangled up in federal law and tend to get far less publicity than other hot-button controversies.
Special education “is not as flashy as some other issues,” says Brown-Kaplan, “but it is essential because we devote so much of our budget — almost 20 percent, $408 million — to special education services.”
Brown-Kaplan says she became an activist after struggling to navigate the special-education world on her own, as her older child was going through elementary school.
In the early years, she says, she had not understood that she had a right to participate in making decisions about her daughter’s academic program.
“I realized a lot of other parents weren’t educated as well,” she says. She started speaking out about special-education issues at local PTAs, and then joined the county’s special education advisory committee.
Between 2007 and 2009, Brown-Kaplan helped fuel a grassroots uprising against proposed changes to state regulations that would have eliminated parents’ right to consent to — or veto — a school’s decision to terminate special education services for a child.
In Fairfax, she has also sought to bring attention to what she says is the disproportionate suspension of students with disabilities. Of the 703 discipline cases that resulted in reassignment or expulsion in 2009-2010, 306 — or 44 percent — were students with disabilities.’
As chair of the the special education committee of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, Brown-Kaplan successfully pushed to pass a resolution in May asking that the school system examine the impact of discipline procedures on special-education students.
Several months later, Brown-Kaplan was removed from her position with the county council. According to a Patch report at the time, the county council president said Brown-Kaplan had violated the organization’s rules when she mentioned her PTA title in campaign-related correspondence.
“I followed every single rule,” says Brown-Kaplan, who maintains that her ouster was a “politically motivated effort.”
“I’m not a rubber stamper,” she says. “I ask tough questions.I think that’s something that’s needed on the school board. I know that’s not what they necessarily appreciate or like but that’s what is going to keep us going forward in the right direction.”
Brown-Kaplan holds a bachelor’s degree in history from George Mason University. She also is a graduate of a nine-month advocacy training program, Partners in Policymaking.
Brown-Kaplan was a Capitol Hill staffer before she went to work in the Office of Management and Budget’s communications office during the late 1980s. She later was a lobbyist for Shell and for a small auto-recycling trade association.
Other at-large candidates are Republican-backed Lolita Mancheno-Smoak and Lin-Dai Kendall; Democratic-backed Ilryong Moon, Ryan McElveen and Ted Velkoff; and Steve Stuban, who is running without a partisan endorsement.