First I want to thank Peggy for her comments. I hoped, and suspected, if we delved into education it would prompt some activity in the comments section. These things work best with your input so I encourage others to let us know what you think about the current posts or past ones; suggest issues you think we need to talk about; agree, disagree; add to or clarify the facts.

Toward that end, and because education so dominates our lives as students and beyond, this go ‘round we will look more closely at some of the regulation changes proposed by the Educational Transformation Task Force—an eight member group appointed by Governor Chris Christie to make State Board rule change recommendations designed to take some administrative and personnel burdens off local school distracts.

As I looked over some of the recommendations in their report it raised some questions. I’m going to ask those here and maybe some of the readers from any perspective can weigh in.

For those who want “some light reading” as the friend who sent me a copy characterized it, the report should be available through the state Department of Ed. (Educational Transformation Task Force Final Report September 5, 2012). It is a bit of a slog though. The section on special ed is 13 pages and includes language tightening edits and recommendations that as far as I can tell are not of concern to advocates of students and their families.

However, some have raised concerns. And three of the recommendations raised some specific questions for me, as well as some thoughts about forging public policy in general.

Broadly, the Task Force report did not adequately explain why the changes were needed, at least not for someone like me—a.k.a the public—who is not saturated in these issues. It states a general theme of reducing certain administrative and personnel burdens on school districts without any indication of how onerous the burden is versus what may be lost by eliminating it—a key ingredient to meaningful public participation in public policy discussions.

One would imagine these requirements were put into place for some reason—most likely in response to recommendations from some other task force or such, also with knowledgeable and dedicated people serving on it. Sure, things change and need to be reviewed and updated. But when they are, there should be simple, understandable justifications about what’s at stake—why the change is necessary and what’s gained and lost.

The Task Force recommends doing away with providing photo copies of student records to families. The family can review those records but the task force said it’s costing districts time and money to make photo copies and “jeopardizes the security of certain records.”

Has there been a big problem with the security of student records with the regs the way they are? If not, that seems a spurious argument. I haven’t heard about it but I don’t live, eat and breathe this stuff so if anyone out there knows, let us know.

The cost issue is a legitimate one. The Open Public Records law that covers all public records has provisions for cost sharing so I’m wondering why those guidelines don’t apply here? If indeed there has been a need for parents to get hard copies of the information they need in the past, hence the requirement to begin with, there should be a way to tweak this so the entire cost is not on the district except in cases where families don’t have the ability to share those costs. On the flip side I would ask how crucial is it for parents to have photo copies of the records? Why isn’t an on-site review sufficient?

Another recommendation is that districts be allowed to have the flexibility to assign staff members who are not part of the Child Study Team to serve as case managers for students.

My layperson’s question here is “what was the problem in the first place with having someone from the team serve as case manager? In other words, why is the change needed?” There are vague references from the Task Force about districts having “greater control” and “flexibility” but no case made in their report about how much there had been an actual burden. I can’t say there is or isn’t. And that’s part of the probelm. The case is not made in the report.

On the other side, one response from advocates response that vital protections would be lost by placing unqualified people who have other important responsibilities in that role, seems a bit knee jerk. Why would districts want someone serving as case manager that didn’t have any reason to be connected to the case? That doesn’t make much sense. The unqualified and important role designations also don’t jibe. Sounds like it would be either/or to me.

On the surface it seems this issue is one where both sides seem to be talking at each other rather than with each other. If there are people at the school who can help a student and do so competently and efficiently for the district then let’s talk about how to make that happen. If there are protections and consistencies embedded in the Child Study Team guidelines that need to be preserved then let’s figure out a way to introduce flexibility into that structure, if that indeed is needed, without compromising it.

In that same vein, the Task Force also recommends allowing districts to have flexibility in what staff members be required to attend Child Study Team meetings and have an active participation in a students educational plans based on whether their particular level of expertise is needed in that case. Sounds reasonable. But, as the recommendation seems to focus mostly on speech-language therapist, advocates have made a strong case for keeping the speech-language therapist requirement on the teams.

My first question is, if you don’t have somebody there that knows the subtleties of speech and language needs of the student how do you know if their expertise is needed? That determination may be easy to make in some cases but not all by any means. In fact, I would imagine the specialty would come in pretty handy in those cases that are not so obvious but where subtle speech and language difficulties could still have a tremendous impact a student’s potential and performance. On the other side (can you see a pattern here?), I can see some common sense in honing the focus of a student’s education plan and using the best people to help them as they go along, which may indeed change and render some areas of expertise superfluous and cluttering. Why single out the speech-language therapist here? Maybe other staff disciplines are not required in the current regs. In any case, the important thing is to ensure students get what they need. A more targeted, focused approach could be a beneficial change as long as disciplines that need to be involved are not allowed to be excluded.

Overall, I would like to hope that a more thoughtful process of communication about these issues would, at least somewhat result in a more universal recognition that competing interests don’t necessarily have to be absolute. My overly simplistic assessment here sees a pattern that is endemic of the way we make and tweak public policy.

The state (or other policy making entity) decides we need to do things differently and those working on it are under tremendous pressure to do something quickly, in time frames governed by political and budgetary cycles. Advocates and families feel left out of the discussion and so, understandably, react defensively to ensure they don’t lose hard earned gains.

Ironically, in all the speed and distrust the final negotiations take longer than if a more thoughtful and deliberate process had been allowed to begin with; and proposed changes are opposed even if some elements might make sense if implemented thoughtfully.

There is no question that the costs of special education are escalating. It is primarily the result of more students. It is also true that the rules and regulations governing special education have become very complex. With that complexity comes duplication, documentation, confusion and inefficiencies. It just does. It’s the nature of the beast. It doesn’t mean the original intentions weren’t positive and necessary but large organizations need to be continually reviewed, reassessed and tweaked for effectiveness.

However, a lot of thought and discussion have gone into what’s there. These ongoing reviews are often done with people who were not part of those earlier discussions.

I would like to see more justification about why some of these changes were deemed to be necessary. Exactly what is the Task Force trying to accomplish here? And how would these recommendations accomplish those goals?

If there are justifiable goals identified that need to be addressed, disagreements should then be on how best to achieve those goals. If the Task Force recommendations are not it, I would like to see some counter proposals.

Going forward I would urge that state departments and their various task forces be allowed the time they need to get up to speed on why things are done the way they are today so they can make thoughtful recommendations about how best to tweak and move forward.

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Disability in Focus