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New Special-Ed Task Force Faces Tough Challenges, Tight Timeframe

One thing that distinguishes group from predecessors is amount of data available to work with

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Regardless of how long it took to appoint a new state task force on special education, the 17 members will have less time to come up with recommendations.

Formally called the Task Force for Improving Special Education of Public School Students, the group appointed by Gov. Chris Christie met for the first time on July 1 to begin its work looking into the needs of students with disabilities -- assessing everything from programs to costs.

But as complicated as that job may be, the law creating the task force -- enacted in spring 2013 -- calls for final recommendations by the end of this calendar year.

That's a tall order. New Jersey's schools face some vexing issues, such as how to best pay for services for special-needs students, how to implement and monitor those services, and how to balance the sometimes-conflicting needs and wants of families, districts, and the state.

According to the statute, the task force will be responsible for the following:

  • evaluating practices for classifying and educating students who are eligible for special education programs and services;

  • developing best practices for education professionals working with special education students;

  • generating strategies to reduce the costs associated with the placement of eligible students in out-of-district public and private schools;

  • establishing in-district special education programs and services; and

  • creating standards and appropriate oversight to ensure that programs and services address the needs of students, focus on student achievement, and assess the effectiveness of programs and services.

Unlike earlier groups addressing many of the same issues, the current task force will benefit from the availability of far more data, from program costs to the needs of specific students.

“There are many more important data sets relative to the important issues that we didn’t have 10 years ago,” said Peggy McDonald, director of the state’s Office of Special Education Services who is serving as the task force’s facilitator. “The data is definitely better than anything we had before.”

Still, McDonald acknowledged there is much work to be done in a short period of time, and the first meeting of the group, as well as its second on August 11, will both focus on setting priorities. She said one of the first questions she posed to the group was the specific data it would want to examine.

She said that it is likely there will be public meetings as well, possibly held regionally, to hear from the general public before the final report is written.

“We definitely foresee having the time to do that,” McDonald said.

In addition to the big issues of funding and programs, the task force has been charged with looking at the regulations that districts must follow when they provide special-education services.

The Christie administration is withholding what may be the most controversial details of its latest regulations until the task force completes its work. These address such issues as the makeup of child-study teams and the time that is mandated for parents to be provided certain documentation about their children.

Led by acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe, the task force comprises the following appointees:

  • John J. Driscoll (parent, Paramus)

  • Jean Pasternak (parent, Short Hills)

  • Kristin P. Hennessy (teacher, Point Pleasant Beach)

  • Kerri Lee Walsifer (special services director, Sea Girt)

  • Kevin Sturges (ARC of NJ, Annandale)

  • Deborah M. Spitalnik, (NJ Council of Developmental Disabilities, Stockton)

  • Catherine M. Lindenbaum (NJ PTA, Brick)

  • Kevin W. Ahearn (NJ Association of School Administrators, Matawan)

  • Donna M. Kaye (NJ School Boards Association, West Windsor)

  • Barbara E. Frascella (NJ Principals and Supervisors Association, Allentown)

  • Corinne Steinmetz (NJ Association of School Business Officials, Phillipsburg)

  • Margaret Kinsell (Statewide Parent Advocacy Network of NJ, Browns Mills)

  • Lynne Strickland (Garden State Coalition of Schools, Rumson)

  • Chris Sarandoulias (Association for Schools and Agencies for the Handicapped, Medford)

  • Marie Blistan (NJ Education Association, Harrisonville)

  • Princess Hogue (American Federation of Teachers, Newark)

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