Ruiz Puts Special Education at the Top of Her Next Agenda

John Mooney | August 3, 2012 | Education
After tenure victory, senator concerned with ways to better serve the 200,000 children with disabilities in New Jersey schools

Credit: NJ Senate Democrats
Sen. Teresa Ruiz
Fresh from winning unprecedented passage of a new tenure reform bill for New Jersey, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz is next taking on an issue that is no less vexed: special education.

Ruiz will hold a hearing next Thursday before the Senate education committee that she chairs, asking educators, advocates, and policy makers to discuss the system that now serves 200,000 children with disabilities in virtually every school in the state.

It’s a massive topic that spans everything from parental rights to racial segregation, and from classroom practices to taxpayer funding. And Ruiz said yesterday she wanted to learn as much as she can from the more than dozen guests she has invited.

“I’m looking for an open and frank discussion about special education in New Jersey,” Ruiz said yesterday. “What are we doing, what are we doing right, what can we be better about?”

One of the advocates who met with Ruiz and about a dozen others in July to prepare for the hearing said the senator had issued a challenge to those in the room.

“She asked for easy fixes to problems that are out there that will make a big difference on people’s lives,” said Brenda Considine, a longtime advocate and coordinator for a 15-year-old group known as the New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform. It includes many of the major special education and disability rights groups in the state.

“Unfortunately, it’s a system that is so complicated and problems so deep rooted that we’re struggling to come up with easy answers,” she said.

Still, Considine said there are both short-term and long-term issues that could use legislative attention. One that her coalition has pushed is a moratorium on new public special education schools, an ever-growing sector — especially the county and regional levels.

“Put a moratorium on any new ones, and let’s spend the money instead to help build capacity at the local level,” Considine said. “That’s a pretty quick fix.”

There is some limit as to the influence of the Legislature on special education policy in the first place, much of it driven by federal law and then regulations set by the state Board of Education.

Still, there are steps the legislature can take to make a big difference, from how state aid is distributed to the balance of power between parents and districts. In 2008, for instance, New Jersey’s Legislature passed a law that placed the so-called “burden of proof” in special education disputes on school districts, offsetting a federal court precedent that had placed it on parents.

Parental rights were one issue that Ruiz said she wanted to at least learn more about, with the hope of helping families who are sometimes overwhelmed by the system.

“I hear this directly from families, where they feel like they need to become attorneys for their children,” she said.

This is not the only stab that the Legislature is taking at special education, with Ruiz and state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) proposing a law to create a new 17-member task force to study a number of issues around the topic, including the financing and high expense of special education programs.

“Numerous inconsistencies have been uncovered in special education programs throughout the state,” Beck said earlier this summer in promoting the bill.

“Millions of dollars are being wasted every year on inefficient and ineffective special education programs,” she said in a press release. “Every student is valuable and deserves the best we can provide, but this can be accomplished in a much more efficient manner.”

The bill passed the Senate unanimously in June, but remains pending in the Assembly.

Such task forces are hardly new, but Ruiz’s new focus is still catching some attention, since she has proven herself the Democrats’ inarguable leader on education issues.

In June, she was chief architect of a new tenure system for teachers and principal that won a rare unanimous approval of both the Assembly and Senate. Gov. Chris Christie has said he will sign the measure, although has yet to do so.

Ruiz said there are also other topics she hopes to take on in the coming months, including improving, if not rewriting, the state’s charter school law.

Another new issue she said she wants to begin exploring is teacher preparation, which she called a natural offshoot of her tenure proposal. That will include what is required of teachers before they become teachers to the training required once on the job, she said.

“I don’t think anything is taking precedent over anything else,” Ruiz said, when asked about her top priorities. All of these issues need to be addressed.”