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Op-Ed: Special Education in New Jersey is Broken. Can We Finally Fix It?

Despite its promise, the findings of the Task Force for Improving Special Education for Public School Students have been largely ignored

jean pasternak (op-ed)
Jean Pasternak

We are two appointees -- a 20-year veteran special-education teacher and a former school board member and parent of a child with disabilities -- to the Task Force for Improving Special Education for Public School Students. We started the process with exuberance and confidence because we had a unique opportunity to be change agents for special education.

We consulted parents about improving achievement, educators about best practices, attorneys about the legal system -- and we had our eyes opened. Special education is really broken.

We expected the task force would identify problems and recommend practical solutions for those weary students, parents, and teachers whose voices were in harmony about what was wrong and what needed to be done to make special education work in New Jersey.

But the objectives, as outlined in the law -- establishing the task force to study the issues and present a fact-based, scientifically researched set of recommendations -- were not followed. The results of two years labor -- the task force report -- was released with little fanfare. We have yet to receive a copy. We got our copies through NJ Spotlight’s link to the report. It appears that no one wants to discuss the report.

We are imploring educational leaders, legislators, and policymakers not to shelve this report. We do not want to merely be the “task force” referred to in the next task force report.

It is not okay to just move on.

We feel morally obligated to voice our concerns, our “minority view,” about what we think needs to happen in special education. So we wrote to the sponsors of the task force, including the governor, the legislators behind the bill creating the task force, and Education Commissioner Hespe about our concerns.

We agree with many of the recommendations in the task force report. Some compelling cases were made in some areas:

  • early identification, using appropriate screening guidelines for dyslexia, and remediation of reading disabilities;

  • inclusive education practices with high-quality service to effectively meet individual student needs;

  • elimination of special education as a “place” and elimination of the division between general and special education;

  • increasing achievement so students are prepared for the transition to post-secondary life.

The problem is most of these recommendations were made decades ago and have never been implemented.

We don’t want to see those recommendations lost, but we feel the task force just didn’t go far enough. We expected this task force to be bold -- in listening to its constituents and in working on robust solutions to the substantial problems raised in our public hearings and in focusing on best practices.

This report’s recommendations are based on the opinions of 17 members, most of them administrators. The report’s focus is on funding and cutting costs -- not cost-effectiveness. It is not reflective, nor does it address the issues of the key stakeholders: New Jersey’s 220,000 special-needs students, the parents and guardians of these students, and New Jersey’s 131,000 teachers.

The task force report says it “considered” the extensive public testimony, but the reality was there was little, if any, attempt made to investigate the concerns of the key constituents: students, parents/guardians, and teachers.

There were four public hearings around the state attended by 158 people. Few systemic problems that the parents and students identified made it into the report, despite the fact that the law states that the reason for the task force was parents’ serious concerns.

One parent said at a hearing, “Many parents feel that the programs and services do not adequately meet the needs of their children, and that the current system is too inflexible to allow for necessary programmatic changes.” NJ parents spoke about of how skewed and unfair the special-education system is for their children with disabilities. They discussed the devastating toll academic failure had taken on their children and their families and how they encountered debilitating -- financial and emotional -- struggles to get their children an appropriate education.

The most pressing issue, according to parents, was the lack of enforcement of the existing laws. As the parent of one child said: "Little is working as mandated by statute … Going into the third year of our fight, we finally understand that it is the lack of oversight and accountability that allows our District and others in special education to blatantly disregard the law and to not carry out their professional duties.”

We heard one parent after another express alarm at his or her child’s lack of educational progress, despite having average to above average IQs. We heard some parents object to using standardized tests as a sole measure of progress.

Yet the progress metric the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) presented the task force was data showing fewer than half of special-education students achieved proficiency in math (44.64 percent) or language arts (37.29 percent) -- with no explanation.

So students were not surveyed, parents were not being heard, and teachers were not polled.

N.J.A.C. 6A:14-1.2(h) mandates: “Each board of education shall ensure that a special education parent advisory group is in place in the district to provide input to the district on issues concerning students with disabilities.” Public testimony from parents directly contradicted this. Parents said their input was ignored; parent advisory groups (PAGs) do not exist in their districts, or groups exist but have been circumvented or made ineffective by school administrators who set up their own hand-picked groups used as rubber stamps.

That parental involvement improves student outcomes is well documented in numerous federal studies.

Parent-run PAGs, in which, parents have the opportunity for a productive exchange with their districts, would be one of the most cost-effective ways to identify and solve systemic problems in special education.

Our recommendations to New Jersey education and government leaders.

We challenge New Jersey’s leaders to restore New Jersey’s historical leadership in special education and to gain public trust in the process. Deploy our talent and boldly fix the broken system, to give New Jersey’s students with disabilities a fighting chance at a productive life.

  • Seek funding for an independent assessment of special education in New Jersey to be completed in 12 months to do what the task force was not able to do: Conduct primary research to determine the actual problems and propose solutions based on scientific, evidence-based research.

  • Introduce a bill to bolster the authority of parent advisory groups so that these groups are given due consideration. There is no more cost-effective way than leveraging the power of parents to solve problems plaguing New Jersey special education.

For more information, visit the Facebook page of New Jersey Teachers and Parents for Appropriate Education (NJTPAE), an emerging group for parents and teachers seeking meaningful reform of special education in New Jersey.

Please join us.

Jean Pasternak is an independent parent appointee to the Task Force for Improving Special Education for Public School Students. She is the parent of a child who has received special-education services in both public and private schools. Pasternak is the founder and president of the Millburn special education committee (M-SPEC) and a former member of the Millburn Board of Education.

Kristin Hennessy is an independent teacher appointee to the task force on special education. She has served as a special education teacher for 20 years in New Jersey’s public schools and as commissioner of the Education Commission of the States, as well as a New Jersey State Board of Education examiner.

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