Senate Committee Makes Dyslexia Its Main Order of Business

In addition to bills dealing with reading disability, panel moves on measure to create special-ed ombudsman

Special education was the paramount topic before the Senate education committee yesterday, with the panel moving nearly a dozen bills, more than half of them aimed at addressing schools’ responses to and services for dyslexia.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) is the primary sponsor of a package of bills that would require special training for teachers and early screening and identification of students for the reading disorder.

Dyslexia is now treated in the broader category of learning disability, but advocates and families of dyslexic children have led a public campaign to specifically address the disorder in schools through broader training and explicit identification and definition in state code.

Among those testifying yesterday were two students with dyslexia, both saying that their families were forced to rely on instructional programs outside their public schools to help them overcome their problem and to learn to read.

Will Marsh, a Rahway teenager at Union Catholic High School, said his frustrations in public elementary and middle school grew so intense that he wrote his mother an email one day about how he hated school and wanted to take a break altogether.

“Today, I’m an AP student, including AP English,” said Marsh, who is organizing a conference about dyslexia at his school in October.

Testifying alongside Marsh, parent Andrew Kavulich said he recalls approaching the special services director in his home district about his young daughter’s dyslexia.

“He said to me, that term ‘dyslexia’ doesn’t exist in this district,” Kavulich said. “As a parent, it was a like a punch in the stomach.

“But what it did is drive me every day to meet people like Will and all of you, and testify to how we have to start somewhere and get this conversation started, he added.”

Still, the measures have drawn some concerns about some of details, mostly from districts and their representatives. Who specifically would receive the training? How would the student screening work alongside other screenings? Should there be identification for specific disorders within the broader category of reading disability?

“Dyslexia is one of many different reading disabilities that a child may be challenged by,” said Jennifer Keyes-Maloney of the state’s principals and supervisors association, which represents special-service directors. “Ensuring staff have a full and complete understanding of the spectrum of reading disabilities is essential.”

The bills each passed the Senate committee overwhelmingly, and next move to the full Senate. They have already passed the Assembly.

Among other bills on its agenda yesterday, the committee also endorsed a measure that would create a state ombudsman for special education.

Sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the committee’s chairman, the bill would have the state commissioner appoint a trained staff member to serve as point person for answering families’ questions and providing guidance for navigating the special education system. He or she would also monitor special education complaints that are lodged through the districts, looking for patterns and trends.

Ruiz had two other related bills that would require the state to post all special education decisions and also track of potential bias in special education placements and classifications.

Another bill that saw more debate would remove the restrictions on districts placing students in outside special education programs located in parochial or sectarian schools.

That bill is sponsored by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the Senate’s majority leader, and cosponsored by a long list of others in both the Senate and the Assembly. But significant questions arose at the hearing yesterday over church-state issues and the question of public money going to religious institutions.

Weinberg and other backers of the bill maintain that safeguards are in place to make sure that public funding would only go to nonsectarian programs. Testifying on the proposal’s behalf yesterday was Nathan Diament, policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

The bill “restricts any state payments to parochial schools to reimbursements for secular, nonsectarian education services after an itemized statement is provided to the state,” Diament said. “This factor clearly ensures that the state will not get anywhere near funding sectarian education and services.”

Among those testifying against the measure were advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, and the Education Law Center in Newark.

“We have seen in other special education matters how difficult it is to segregate the funds for what are sectarian services and what are not,” said Ruth Lowenkron, a staff attorney with the Education Law Center. “I can tell you from my own experiences having gone to sectarian school, there is a sense that religion is infused throughout.”

The bill was passed in committee, but with notable abstentions from Ruiz and state Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington).