Fine Print: Report on Special Education Raises Challenges, Both New and Familiar

John Mooney | April 14, 2014 | Education
Year-long study by NJ School Boards Association offers 20 recommendations for improving public education for students with disabilities

What it is: A report titled “Special Education: A Service, Not a Place.” It was released last week by the New Jersey School Boards Association after a year-long study of the state’s special education system.

What it means: The report comes at a time when school districts face increasing pressure over programs and budgets. The tensions between general education and special education are, as ever, a byproduct of those strains.

The state recently reached a landmark settlement with disability advocates to put more emphasis – and enforcement — of more inclusive special-education programs.

The school boards association’s report may provide a salve – and policy options — to ease some of those tensions, although it may add to others.

Trend lines: Either way, the number of students classified with one disability or another has risen in the last five years, according to the report. From 2007 to 2012, the number of classifications rose nearly 5 percent, while overall school enrollment dropped 1 percent. About 202,000 New Jersey students were classified in 2012-13, representing about 15.5 percent of total enrollment.

New take on old issues: The report highlights a few new issues in the debate, and emphasizes such ideas as regionalizing some special-education services like child study teams. It also calls on school districts to serve struggling students earlier, before they need to be classified as having special needs.

Lost money: One long-running issue getting new attention is the estimated $10 million in federal Medicaid money lost for special-education services, largely due to the failure of school districts to complete required paperwork. The shortfall was cited in a state auditor’s report last year. The school board report recommends regional coordination in order to better comply with the Medicaid funding requirements.

Old issues, old positions: The report also reiterates some of the long-standing positions taken by school boards and school districts, including their support for shifting the legal burden of proof in the case of disputes to those lodging complaints – typically, the families of students. State law now places the burden of proof on school districts.

The task force: The study group was led by Gerald Vernotica, a former state education commissioner and Hunterdon County superintendent who is now an associate professor at Montclair State University. He led a group of nine school board members and administrators who consulted two dozen experts across the state and surveyed more than 100 districts.

A familiar goal: The report says the aim of its recommendations is to reduce costs of special education while improving services.

Good luck with that: Creation of the association’s task force coincided with the enactment of a law, signed by Gov. Chris Christie last March, that called for creation of a state task force to look at special-education needs and costs. Thirteen months later, the task force’s members have not even been appointed.

Reaction I: A sampling of advocates garnered mixed reactions to the report, all tempered by the fact that many of these issues are hardly new.

Diana Autin, co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, raised a number of concerns, including the report’s language about “controlling classifications,” which she said runs counter to federal and state law.

Autin said the option of regionalizing child-study teams also ignores the knowledge that local districts have about their schools and students. And she said early intervention is already required, although it is not always adequately implemented by schools or monitored by the state.

Reaction II: “The title of the report, ‘Special Education: A Service, Not A Place,’ says a lot about shifting views of special education, and it echoes language that special-education advocates have been using for years,” said Brenda Considine, a longtime advocate and coordinator for the New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform.

“The report raises a number of good ideas that have been proposed in the past,” she said. “I guess it remains to be seen whether there is an appetite on the part of state government and the stakeholder community to tackle major reform of special education funding and service delivery.”