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Changes to Special-Ed Code Add to Tensions Between Parents, Administration

John Mooney | February 7, 2013

Taken singly, the proposed revisions deal with minutia, but parents argue they add up to significant amendments.

Special-education laws and regulations are nothing if not complex, and even the smallest change can spark off passionate debate from all parties involved.

The latest revisions to New Jersey’s special-ed directives are no exception.

Depending on the perspective, the new proposals could make life easier for schools or for families of kids with special needs. That distinction is the crux of the arguments echoing in the Statehouse and the Department of Education.

Yesterday, the Christie administration introduced before the State Board of Education more than 200 pages of code revisions that are in keeping with its efforts to ease some of the bureaucratic burden on schools.

Assistant Education Commissioner Barbara Gantwerk, who oversees the department’s special-education programs, stressed that the measures were intended to give more flexibility to districts and families.

She said the proposal was not changing the basic tenets of the system that serves more than 210,000 students statewide, ranging from those with learning or speech impairments to those with extensive cognitive and physical disabilities.

But in a system rife with conflicts between districts and parents, easing the rules for some often means tightening them for others.

“The only places where they were trying to reduce burdens was for districts, not for parents,” said Peg Kinsell, policy director for the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, who attended yesterday’s state board meeting.

Taken singly, the changes involve the minutia of special-education code, but taken together they could add up to major changes. For instance, the new code would loosen the rules about who could be the case manager for a student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or who must attend the meetings that address a student's original identification and evaluation.

The tensions surfaced at the State Board meeting when a board member questioned the plans to ease the notification requirements when hiring the special education aides who often serve as a lifeline for students.

“I am really troubled by that, especially with students who are so vulnerable,” said Dorothy Strickland, a Rutgers education professor and board member from South Orange.

She cited newspaper reports about abuse of students, and said the safeguards are necessary.

“This doesn’t seem a big deal for the department,” she said. “At least set some parameters.”

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf argued the point, saying the goal is to remove bureaucratic obstacles for districts and called this a “paper-pushing exercise.”

“This implies that we don’t trust districts to make their own judgments and they need a state-directed mandate,” he said.

Strickland said maybe they do -- at least to maintain high standards. The board formally asked the administration to come back with a revised proposal.

This is just one area where special education is playing out politically. The state Legislature last month cleared the way for a new task force that would explore all special-education issues, including the increasing demand for more funding.

The measure has passed and awaits Gov. Chris Christie’s signature.

“The question is how we spend the money, how we can provide better services, and how do we provide a better product for our kids and our parents,” said state Assemblyman David Rible (R-Monmouth), a chief sponsor of the bill.

He acknowledged there have been plenty of special-education task forces before, but said the pressures are mounting and the state needs to address them head on. He specifically cited the state having the highest concentration of students diagnosed with autism in the country.

“A lot of these issues we can’t walk away from any more,” he said.

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