Report on Special Education Oversight Comes With Warnings

John Mooney | July 22, 2011 | Education
State meets many metrics but falls short in two key areas

New Jersey’s oversight of local special education programs — ever a complex and contentious topic — won some praise but also received warnings from federal monitors in their latest compliance report.

The report from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services includes year-old data, in this case 2009-2010. Still, the federal monitoring represents an annual report card on how well a state serves its special education population, numbering more than 200,000 students in New Jersey.

Red Flags and Commendations

First, the warnings.

The state for the first time in three years was placed in a “needs assistance” category in two areas for how quickly it investigates and resolves complaints against districts for not meeting requirements — from class sizes for students with disabilities, to the availability of programs, to the handling of disputes with parents.

But in the June 20 letter, New Jersey also won praise for other categories, including improved data collection. Overall, it met 18 of 20 categories.

One category that has long troubled many states, including New Jersey, is the disproportionate amount of minority students classified as disabled; the state exceeded federal standards in resolving these investigations, according to the report.

The report is closely watched in special education circles, and the “needs assistance” labels this year drew attention from state officials and advocates alike.

Assistant education commissioner Barbara Gantwerk played down the citations as both old history and relatively minor in the context of meeting a vast majority of the indicators.

“It boils down to meeting 18 of 20 indicators right out,” she said.

Gantwerk noted that one citation was for failing to meet federal requirements to either resolve or move to mediation 100 percent of complaints within 60 days. New Jersey’s rate was 86 percent.

She said the state at the time had only one compliance investigator, a situation that has changed with the addition of three more. “The fact we got 86 percent was pretty good,” Gantwerk said.

Advocates responded with a mix of reactions, but some said the report raises a red flag on issues that nag the state. One noted that mediations were still backed up at the end of this school year.

“We continue to have concerns around compliance and the timeliness of investigations and mediation,” said Peg Kinsell, public policy director for Statewide Parent Advocacy Network.

“We hear it from families and we know it ourselves that with the staffing issues and reorganization issues in the department, there still hasn’t really been a director since the last one left [close to a year ago],” she said. “The focus just hasn’t been on students with disabilities.”