Special education is getting special attention at the State House during the weeks remaining in 2015, with both Gov. Chris Christie and the state Senate taking up bills related to services for New Jersey’s 200,000-plus students with special needs.
Christie last week signed a new law requiring school districts to provide training for school-bus drivers and aides in how to interact with children with special needs. In addition, special “student information cards” will be provided to drivers to inform them of the particular needs of each child.
Several other relevant may also be on the way to the governor’s desk.
The Senate’s budget committee last week approved a measure that would create the state’s first ombudsman specifically for special-education matters, requiring the state Department of Education to set up a mechanism to directly handle complaints about special-needs programs.
And the Senate’s education committee today will review a package of bills dealing with a variety of special-education issues ranging from extra training for teachers in how to deal with students with autism to requiring the state to be more transparent about legal decisions relating to local districts’ special-education programs.
Several of the bills have been pending for a long time, but the fact that they are coming up in the lame duck session between the November election and the new year portends some action, at least on the Senate side.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate committee, said she hoped to at least spur some needed discussion about special-education services.
“They are all just a start,” Ruiz said yesterday. “We have to do better with a comprehensive approach for the child and the family.”
The bills before Ruiz’s committee today are varied, none of them sweeping in themselves but each seeking to address a specific issue.
For instance, Ruiz herself has sponsored a bill that would create a new license endorsement for teachers to work with children on the autism spectrum. The Assembly version of the bill passed unanimously in that chamber in June, and this is its first hearing in the Senate.
Another bill, also sponsored by Ruiz, would establish state guidance for the use of early intervention programs for students before they are classified for special education. The bill would center on the use of strategies known as “Response to Intervention” (RTI).
Other bills appear more symbolic than anything else, including one that would require the state to post on its website all legal decision related to special education. Such a site already exists on the site, although not explicitly for special education cases.
Nonetheless, not all is moving quickly on the topic in Trenton. In a bill approved by the Legislature and signed by Christie in 2013, a special state task force was created to look into funding and oversight of special education.
Both are hot topics, as the state and local districts grapple with how to address rising costs in special education at a time of constrained budgets. The work of the 17-member panel was all but completed this spring, when state officials said it was under review.
But two years after passage of the law, the report has yet to be released.