The Feedback Loop: Public Comments and Questions About Special-Ed Ombudsman

John Mooney | January 29, 2016 | Education
NJ Spotlight readers, advocates, and lawmakers go public on this new position created by a law signed this month by Gov. Christie

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex)
Last week, NJ Spotlight asked its readers to weigh in on a law signed by Gov. Chris Christie this month that created a special-education ombudsman, essentially an office inside the state Department of Education that would help families and others work through issues involving students with disabilities.

We heard back through comments and emails from more than a dozen people, including advocates, educators, and one of the prime legislative sponsors of the new law.

A common theme was exactly how neutral this position would be.

The following are excerpts:

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), a prime co-sponsor: “The goal of the law is to help families navigate the process but also to help hold accountable school districts that offer special-education programs and services to students. If there are things that districts are doing well, that’s great, but if there is an opportunity to improve the process, we have to get better … I expect that, ultimately, we will move toward making the office completely independent by establishing it outside of the Department of Education.”

Diana Autin, codirector of Statewide Parent Advocacy Network: “We support the idea that this office will serve as a resource for disability-related information and referrals to other available programs and services for individuals with disabilities … However, we do have concerns about how an office that is within the Department of Education can act with neutrality and be effective in resolving disputes in districts that have historically ignored the rights of students with disabilities.”

Jean Pasternak, parent advocate, member of the special education task force: “The ombudsperson is a great idea, but there are already several strikes, from a parent’s point of view, against the position … Parents were not consulted about this bill/law and they are the most significant constituency impacted by it. …

However, the least redundant and most promising role this person could fill is … to identify any patterns of complaints that emerge regarding special-education rights and services, and to recommend strategies for improvement to the Department of Education.”

Julie Borst, organizer, Save Our Schools NJ: “I told the (Senate Education) Committee that while the ombudsman position is, unfortunately, needed, parents do not need another roadblock to appropriate services … The bill also describes one of the fundamental jobs of the position as informing parents of the process/special-ed laws. It’s unfortunate that the bill presumes ignorance and that there is nowhere to get that information. (The state) should really be doing this already.”

Kikane (online comment): “How can they be neutral if they are paid by the state and report to the state??? My concern lies with the fact that disputes happen and even when mediation occurs, the reps from the state who are to be neutral are not. They typically talk like attorneys and oftentimes intimidate parents because they are friendly with the district staff and attorney for said district. The only true way a position could be neutral and effective would be for them to be an outside contractor brought in and paid equally by both sides. For the state to simply appoint or hire someone negates the neutrality and effectiveness. Just another state employee added to the mix that the taxpayers pay for to bully them into submission and who loses, the student with disabilities.”

Rzamloot (online comment): “I am not very optimistic about the usefulness of the Office of Special Education Ombudsman to parents in need of real help. Although the office may assist in providing general information, it is highly unlikely to engage in meaningful problem solving.”

Frie (online comment): “Oversight and knowing their rights hasn’t worked for parents in these situations. More oversight will not overcome the fundamental understanding that these state-employed individuals are not primarily child advocates.”

Buzzoff1234 (online comment): “More of the same old status quo of not solving vast problems in special education and of looking the other way by lawmakers of the large-scale discrimination and civil rights violations against children with disabilities and learning differences and their families.”