New cost-saving proposals strike at heart of special ed

New cost-saving proposals strike at heart of special ed This fall, the state Board of Regents will be making recommendations to the state Legislature on another package of cost-containment measures. This isn’t new. Special education is a very large target because it is expensive and it has a lot of requirements. But this time is different.

“It is important as we consider the various cost-containment measures, we also maintain the integrity of the instructional, assessment and student supports necessary for our students to receive a high quality education,” said Regent Lester Young, Jr.

Psychologist’s role targeted

Yet the current proposals strike at the heart of the special education process. You may have heard that the Regents want to eliminate the school psychologist as a required member of the team that makes eligibility decisions and service recommendations. But as Regent Kathleen Cashin notes, “Our neediest children require the judgment and protection of the psychologist in determining the proper environment and services we offer them.” Regent Betty Rosa said she, too, found it difficult to support sidelining the school psychologist “at a time when school personnel need tremendous support to respond to the emotional, behavioral and learning challenges of our students with special needs in this high-stake testing and student achievement environment.”

Evaluations would be scaled back

But that is only part of it. The Regents also want to dismantle the evaluations that students receive before they are recommended for special education services and the services that support them when they return full-time to a general education setting. Let me explain.

By federal law, students referred for special education evaluation are entitled to be evaluated in all areas of suspected disability. We have a wide range of disabilities in our schools. For high-incidence disabilities, challenging behavior is often the precipitating factor for referral, but behavior is usually not the real issue. Rather, behavior is the outward expression of underlying learning, family or health issues. The way we find that out is through an individual psychological evaluation, a social history interview, observing the student in the classroom and other settings, and information provided by the child’s physician. Whatever the cause, the behavior still needs to be addressed, of course. But to do that in a manner that has any chance of success, we have to look at the triggers and form some hypotheses about why the child is misbehaving in certain situations. The framework for doing that is the functional behavioral assessment.

This round of cost-containment measures would eliminate the specific requirements currently in state law and regulations for all of these things. The State Education Department says this is not a problem because districts and schools could still do them when needed and we should trust them to do the right thing. Call me a skeptic or a naysayer, but I’ve received over 4,000 complaints from members and parents about children not receiving their special education services. With budgets stretched beyond the breaking point, I’m not going to trust districts or schools to do anything the state tells them they don’t have to do. The requirements exist precisely because districts and schools do not do the right things with special education money when given flexibility — the new buzzword in education — to spend as they see fit.

No support for transition back

And then there is the other end of the process: when students are ready to return to general education full-time but may need some short-term help to successfully navigate the transition. I know many students who have benefited from instructional support, speech services or counseling provided for up to a year after leaving a special education setting. The state argues that these supports are dispensable since declassification planning and support requirements have not increased the number of students moving to mainstream classrooms. Unless I missed something, the State Education Department didn’t ask you — the people who make recommendations regarding students’ readiness to exit special education — if you would be more or less likely to recommend declassification if declassification support services were not available. I am quite confident that declassification decisions will be delayed and declassification rates will go down if this measure is adopted, rendering it penny wise and pound foolish.

Where does this leave us? Special education is in serious trouble. Students with disabilities are not receiving the expert support they need to achieve and graduate with a credential that will allow them to continue their education or succeed in the workforce. Everything — from pre-service preparation to service delivery — needs to be re-examined in light of what the research is telling us and fixed. The task seems overwhelming, I know. But we can begin by making sure kids continue to receive quality evaluations to identify the need for special education services and the support they require when they are ready to transition back into the mainstream.

I hope the Regents heed the caution expressed by Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch: “We have to be very careful about what mandate relief is asking. We have to make sure we are not throwing out the baby with the bath water.”

Check “What’s New” in the Students with Disabilities section of the UFT website for updates.

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