Partial retreat on special ed cuts

Carmen AlvarezCarmen Alvarez Our strong alliance with parents, advocates, disability groups and professional organizations was on display this fall as we together fought another series of cost-containment proposals for special education made by the State Education Department. More than 700 written and oral comments were submitted and more than 200 individuals attended the public hearings on “mandate relief.” The UFT and its partners presented compelling professional and personal arguments about how certain proposals made by the Regents would harm students with disabilities and their families.

In the end, the State Education Department presented a modified package of cost-containment measures to the Board of Regents on Nov. 2. While we are not completely satisfied with the outcome, we succeeded in getting the Regents to pull back in two important areas:

  • The Regents rejected the proposal to eliminate the requirement that initial evaluations include a physical examination, individual psychological evaluation, social history, observation, other appropriate evaluations and a functional behavioral assessment when the child’s behavior impeded learning;
  • The Regents modified the proposal to remove the school psychologist as a required member of the Committee on Special Education (CSE) to require the involvement of the school psychologist if the meeting is to determine the child’s initial eligibility for special education.

We were not able to prod substantive changes in two other proposals that concern us:

  • The Regents approved the proposal to remove a parent and a physician as required members of the CSE; and
  • The Regents approved the proposal to eliminate the planning requirement for declassification services with clear direction that CSEs are still responsible for recommending declassification support services, when appropriate, to assist students in moving from special education to full-time general education.

The measure of success that we were able to achieve would not have been possible without the hard work and support of Regents Kathleen Cashin and Betty Rosa. They brought the voice of experienced New York City educators to the table and they understood how these proposals would play out in schools. At the end of the day, they alone had the personal courage to vote against the entire package.

But this battle isn’t over. Even with the Regents’ “approval,” the changes will not go into effect unless they are adopted by the state Legislature.

So let’s take stock of where we are. While the modified proposal retains the school psychologist on the CSE for initial evaluations, we strongly believe that unless the school psychologist has specific responsibilities connected to the process, triennials — those crucial three-year re-evaluations of eligibility and need — will largely disappear. School psychologists currently “manage” and are accountable for the process. Teachers aren’t familiar with it. Nor do teachers have the time or expertise to do anything more than annual reviews. Our schools are still suffering from the elimination of education evaluators and special education supervisors.

We are also deeply concerned about the elimination of the parent member from the CSE. The special education process is incredibly complex and intimidating for most families. Parents need knowledgeable allies to inform and advise them about the special education process and the full range of services that school districts are required to make available to support their children. The CSE meetings involve serious decisions, such as placement in special classes, District 75 programs, out-of-district programs and home instruction. Parent members are not paid to serve on the CSE, so the only cost to school districts is for training and administration of this requirement.

The regulatory requirement for declassification support services will remain intact even if the state Legislature votes to eliminate the planning requirement. But it will be up to the State Education Department to make sure that school districts don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. We are not sure it is up to that task.

We plan to lobby the state Legislature hard not to approve the revised package in its entirety. We must not allow the Legislature to inflict any more damage to the fabric of special education without a huge fight.

Once more, I am ending my column with a “stay tuned” for further developments. I am working as we speak with my colleagues in the UFT and NYSUT and the parent and advocacy community to develop an action campaign targeted at the Legislature. I know that I will be able to count on you again to help us get the message out.

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