State Backs Off On Changes in Special-Ed Regulations

John Mooney | June 19, 2013 | Education
Proposed new code encountered strong opposition from advocates, families

The Christie administration has pulled back from its hotly contested plans to change special-education requirements for school districts and families, leaving current regulations in place for now.

The state Board of Education will meet in an emergency session on Friday to take the unusual step of vacating its preliminary approval of the proposed changes, then voting to extend the current regulations.

Without the vote, the regulations would have expired without any new regulations to replace them.

The decision came in the face of strong opposition to the proposed changes, which were billed as a move to free up districts from some of the strict requirements for programs and staffing to educate the state’s 210,000 students with disabilities.

One of the most controversial proposals would have loosened required qualifications for serving as a student’s case manager, a critical conduit for families in coordinating a child’s services. Another contested provision would have exempted private special-education schools from having the same certification requirements for their teachers as district schools.

The proposals sparked an unusual amount of public comment directed at the state board, with some of it spilling into the Legislature as well. So contentious was the case-manager proposal that the Assembly was moving a bill that would have essentially blocked the administration from making the change.

The state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, led a strong campaign against the entire package of regulatory changes, and hundreds of people submitted testimony to the state board. Nonetheless, the state board had moved to proceed with the changes with little, if any, dissent.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf yesterday maintained the changes were “extremely modest,” and he did not rule them out for future adoption. But he said the amount of opposition from advocates and families gave him pause.

“We maybe did not communicate this as well as we could have,” Cerf said. “We wanted to have the chance to process this, as this is a community we care about and want to bring along. That will take more time.”

Some advocates cheered the decision, saying the changes were not at all modest and would have hurt students and families.

“We are extremely pleased that the department has rescinded the proposal, and is planning to reauthorize the regulations as they are,” said Ruth Lowenkron, an attorney with the Education Law Center in Newark, who testified against the changes at several hearings.

“We trust they heard the voice of advocates and families who said these were problematic, and we trust they will not revisit them anytime soon,” she said. “And if they do, they will listen to the advocates and families.”

When and if state officials will revisit the regulations is uncertain, especially in the face of the gubernatorial and legislative elections in November.

State board President Arcelio Aponte said yesterday that he expected they would be back in the fall, but acknowledged it was highly unusual for the state board to be asked to vacate a vote in the first place.

“But it is also unusual to have received this level of comments that we did, where there were literally hundreds and hundreds of letters,” he said.

The decision comes as special education issues are rising to the fore on several fronts, with the Legislature taking up a variety of proposals in the last month, including shearing last week devoted solely to special education.

Next up, the Senate education committee will hold a rare Wednesday hearing this morning on nearly a dozen special-education measures, including a bill to create a state ombudsman for special-education complaints and several other proposals to improve identification, training and programs for teaching students with dyslexia and other reading disorders.