a free appropriate public education

State, special ed advocates tussle over proposed changes to IEPs

Special ed advocates objected to the limited choices in this drop-down menu on the proposed IEP form.
Special ed advocates objected to the limited choices in this drop-down menu on the proposed IEP form.

A new push by the state to standardize the way school districts plan which services special needs students should receive is rattling parents across New York.

At the heart of the process is a document called the Individualized Education Plan, which a team of experts crafts to describe the student’s educational needs and how the school should address them.

For years, every school district has used its own IEP form. Now, state officials have created standardized forms to be used by all districts.

The officials say this is an important move because it will create consistency across the state, but special education advocates are worried that the new form could put children’s needs in jeopardy. Everyone agrees that IEP forms are crucial documents because they are the strongest form of insurance a parent can have that his child will get specific services. Advocates worry that the forms the state is pushing would weaken that insurance.

The state started developing the new IEPs in early 2007, when they showed drafts to a select group of parents, educators, and others with an interest in special education. The standardized forms were supposed to be used as early as January 2009, despite advocates’ calls for an open public feedback process first. The United Federation of Teachers applied pressure on the state, and in October, the Regents approved an emergency delay to allow for three public hearings and a final revision of the forms. At the second of these hearings, held yesterday in Manhattan, state officials said they would post the comments they receive on the state’s website in January, and the revised forms will be rolled out at the start of the next school year.

It’s unclear how willing the state will be to make changes. Although representatives of NYSED took notes on the speakers’ concerns and said they’d take what they heard into account when revising the documents, a question-and-answer session at the end suggested that the forms are unlikely to change much.

“We can’t mandate information that’s not mandated,” said Rebecca Cort, Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities. “All we can require is the things that are required.”

What she meant is that if NYSED requires every district to use the new forms, it must limit the questions to information required by state or federal regulations. The state can’t force school districts to gather other kinds of information. Many of the concerns raised at the hearing relate to information that isn’t required to be in the IEP under state regulations.

Cort’s statement didn’t sound right to some special education experts. “If you look at it really broadly, the whole statutory purpose of the IEP form is to facilitate the provision of a free appropriate public education to each child with a disability in New York State. I would think that they can put on the form whatever questions are needed to meet that purpose or goal,” Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates For Children of New York, told me.

Cort assured the audience that many of their concerns will be addressed in the guidance document and training sessions that the state will create to accompany the new forms. And districts can add to the state’s form (but not change it) to include some of the missing information, she said.

But Maggie Moroff, also of Advocates For Children, is concerned that guidance documents tend to be long and technical; the city’s new special education Standard Operating Procedures Manual runs to almost 300 pages. “If it isn’t on the face of the IEP which actually goes into the hands of the parents and educators then it’s hard for the state to make sure the kids are getting what they need,” she said.

Details on the issues raised in the hearing:

  • A drop-down menu gives only two choices for a child’s Behavior Intervention Plan: Time Out Room and Other. “What does ‘other’ mean?” speakers wanted to know, questioning why more positive behavioral interventions hadn’t been specified as options. Since “Other” is vague, the drop-down menu will lead to people defaulting to Time Out Room rather than “the many creative and interesting ways of changing a student’s behavior,” Moroff told me.
  • The IEPs lack information about whether the child is on track to receive an IEP diploma, Regents diploma, or Advanced Regents diploma. Speakers suggested that the document should raw parents’ attention to this question, since the IEP diploma severely limits a student’s options after high school graduation. “How does a school properly plan for a child’s graduation and discuss this with a parent, if you are not sure of where you’re headed?” asked Mary Kemp, who works with learning disabled students in a private school.
  • The section of the IEP document specifying related services, such as speech therapy, does not specify the size of the group the child should be in for these services. With budget cuts looming, speakers said that schools are likely to put all children in the largest groups legally allowed. Currently, IEPs can set a group size for a child that is less than the legal maximum, but this might not happen unless the option is made clear in the new documents.
  • The new IEPs lack a cover sheet tracking attendance at IEP meets and do not include information about the parent’s home language. Several people testifying said that these holes in the new forms could result in parents being shut out of important decisions about their children’s education. They also expressed concern that the new IEP forms do not highlight medical information that alerts educators to a child’s potentially serious health issues. Officials from NYSED countered that they expect most districts will address those concerns by adding a cover sheet to the IEP.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.