Driving passengers in Teslas along the Vegas Loop, an underground tunnel system in Las Vegas, was not exactly how Glenna Wright-Gallo thought she'd spend her time as she waited for the U.S. Senate to confirm her nomination as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.
But she was bored, and shuttling tourists and locals to Sin City's most popular spots did not appear to be a conflict of interest that would prevent congressional approval as the nation's top special education leader.
In fact, she said the interim job was "entertaining."
"I got to meet a lot of different people in a lot of roles and have conversations with them," Wright-Gallo said. One passenger, noting a book on leadership that Wright-Gallo had in the car, struck up a conversation about the traits of effective managers.
Finally in May — 18 months after President Joe Biden nominated her — Wright-Gallo won Senate confirmation by a 52-44 vote. Opposition to her nomination fell mostly along political party lines, with some Republican lawmakers attributing their "nay" votes to disapproval of the Education Department's student loan forgiveness efforts.
In her first six months as assistant secretary of OSERS, Wright-Gallo has focused on improving outcomes and raising expectations for the nation's 7.6 million infants, toddlers and students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Wright-Gallo said this includes ensuring states and districts have access to evidence-based practices that support academic achievement and social-emotional learning. And it encompasses making sure educators and students have access to assistive technology, as well as using, when appropriate, distance learning best practices adopted in the first year of the pandemic when many schools were closed to in-person learning.
Additionally, Wright-Gallo said the office is targeting opportunities to engage educators, administrators, students, families and other stakeholders.
From birth to adulthood
Before her appointment to OSERS, Wright-Gallo spent her career as a special education teacher, in the Utah state education agency and then state director of special education in Utah and Washington. She also served as president of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education in 2016-17 and again in 2021-22.
In addition to driving Teslas while waiting on her OSERS confirmation, Wright-Gallo trained as an elementary school substitute teacher in Las Vegas' Clark County School District — the same district she attended as a child and where she was a student teacher. However, she ultimately only got to sub one day before the Senate vote.
"It was nice to have that opportunity to be back in a classroom and be able to experience that and try out some new things, as well as to see what was the same in schools since the last time I was there in an educator role, and what had changed," she said about her time back in the district.
For example, multi-tiered system of supports represented a new approach to interventions when she taught in the early 2000s. Seeing that such schoolwide systems are now used regularly, including for students with and without disabilities, reinforced the progress being made to support students, she said.
“We recognize that there's a lot of effort that the teachers and school administrators and families are putting forward around all students, including students with disabilities, and we appreciate that work."
Assistant secretary of OSERS
When she interviewed for the substitute position, however, she also saw how the special education teacher shortage is impacting school districts. She was asked several questions about what she would do if there weren't any lesson plans or if a student had challenging behaviors.
As OSERS assistant secretary, Wright-Gallo said she is encouraging school systems to use data to make informed decisions about allocating resources. This month OSERS announced a new $14.5 million technical assistance center to address data quality for identifying significant disproportionality in special education.
While OSERS puts out its own guidance and resources, as do OSERS-funded technical assistance centers, it also works with other Education Department offices and even other federal agencies on disseminating resources that address support to all students, Wright-Gallo said.
The special education community, including advocacy organizations, has called for more funding for special education. The IDEA, signed into law 48 years ago next month, has never been "fully funded," which is 40% of the additional cost to serve students with disabilities. The IDEA funding level stood at 13% in 2021 — or, on average, $1,739 per IDEA-eligible student, according to IDEA Money Watch, which monitors IDEA funding.
Wright-Gallo said several Education Department technical assistance centers support state and district effective spending practices, including ways to make strategic staffing decisions and to braid and blend special education funding with other revenue sources.
Another key element, she said, is for districts to look at multi-tiered system of supports and use special education funds for specialized services for students with disabilities while ensuring those students still have access to all of the general education services available.
Additionally, the Education Department wants to see students with disabilities have more college and career pathways, not fewer, she said.
"Are we looking at effective practices that move us towards improvements that lead to competitive integrated employment?" Wright-Gallo asked, emphasizing that OSERS is the only office in the Education Department that works with people from birth through adulthood.
Helping states and districts remove barriers to special education services is another focus area for the office, Wright-Gallo said. OSERS's Office of Special Education Programs, for example, issued updated policy guidance in July saying states should promptly identify and correct a district’s noncompliance with early intervention services for infants and toddlers and K-12 special education services.
Wright-Gallo said OSERS leaders and staff are also learning from the special education community.
"We recognize that there's a lot of effort that the teachers and school administrators and families are putting forward around all students, including students with disabilities, and we appreciate that work," she said.
"We're learning from the things that they're trying — their willingness to be adaptable and innovative, and they're helping us together as a group identify barriers that we're working actively to address and reduce and remove.”