Wednesday, March 8, 2017

PARCC Season Brings Desperate Actions by NJ Administrators. Again.


This time last year, as the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) was cracking down on districts with high refusal rates, administrators across the state started doing some truly crazy and not well thought out things to students. I wrote two posts about it. You can read those posts here and here

Unfortunately, this year, we are already hearing stories from all over the state. Let me remind everyone this test still has not been validated. It's still hasn't even been run two years in a row. And, the supporting "evidence" of validity NJDOE claims, are not. You can read about that here

The story below was brought to my attention by parents who are deeply troubled by their children being used as pawns. Parental word should have been enough. What occurred goes to the very heart of trust. In this case, trust is now lost. Our children deserve so much better than this. 

In preparation for administering the PARCC test, many schools are testing their systems to see if it can handle the technology before the actual test. If you have not sent your letter in yet, the Save Our Schools NJ's refusal form (found here) has been used by parents for the past few years and it clearly states:
"I/we, ______refuse to allow our child(ren), ______, to participate in the following: PARCC Performance-Based Assessments, PARCC End-Of-Year Assessments, (and) Any test-prep activities, computer- or paper-based, associated with or designed to prepare for PARCC assessments". 
There is a growing group of angry parents in Washington Township (Gloucester County). Last year, this school district was first in South Jersey to write a resolution against the PARCC test. Several parents have tried to use the refusal form from the Save Our Schools NJ website and it was rejected by some of the administrators within the district. In its place, the administration has handed out a form the district tried to enforce last year against parents’ wishes. 

During the 2015-16 school year, the district asked parents to come in for meetings. If they could not come in, a phone conference was needed and the district supplied the form for parents to sign. Many parents refused to sign the form due to its content. The Board of Education explained their stance at a Spring work session, stating that parents do not need a meeting, do not need a phone conference, and do not need to sign a form. This year it seems all of that is forgotten. 

This year, parents have been told the form letter is a directive from Central Administration. Parents have been receiving returned refusal letters along with the school supplied form letter stamped "Do Not Duplicate". The district is also claiming there is a March 1st deadline to refuse. Parents who refused last year are not being asked to come in and talk, but parents who are new to refusing are being asked to come in. All in direct contradiction to last year’s statement from the Board of Education.

A parent reached out to one of our organizers because their child was asked to participate in the practice testing even though the refusal letter was sent in. The letter clearly stated that the child was not to participate in testing the test and was not to log in. 
The student had to explain to the teachers that their parents refused PARCC and the practice tests. The teachers explained to the student that it was not counting towards anything.  The young student again had to explain to the two teachers this was not what their family wanted. 

The school administrator put the student in detention, which is usually reserved for students who are being punished.

Two things are wrong with this; 1. If a parent says no, two adults should not be pressuring the child to go against their parents’ wishes. 2. Why on earth would a child be placed in a punishment room for refusing?

The explanation given to the parent was the school did not put the student in detention to punish - they had to think quickly of a place to put the child before the test.
The school had the refusal already, so being unprepared for the child is a questionable response. Also, refusing children last week were told they were going to be placed in internal/restriction during the testing. That was changed after parents found out. Families were told the students were going to watch a movie in the drama room, but instead the refusing students sorted colored pencils. Does that seem like a good use of class time? 

Believe it or not, this parent's child got off easy. Other parents who refused for their children are now furious that their children were not with this student in the restriction room. Why, you ask? This may shock you, but their children were forced to take the test against their parents’ wishes.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

The End of Special Education Part VI: AZ Parents, Heads Up!


There are generally too many stupid education and special education stories these days to comment on them all, but this one is worthy of everyone's attention. My "The End of Special Education" series has gained a lot of attention since Betsy DeVos' confirmation hearing, so I'm taking it up again. 

Arizona lawmakers want to do away with specially certified teachers for students with disabilities. You can read the article from the Phoenix New Times here. You can read the full text of the Arizona Senate Bill 1317 here

The offending language, changing the law to allow non-special education certified teachers is:
INCLUDES INSTRUCTION THAT IS DELIVERED BY ANY PERSON WHO IS CERTIFICATED PURSUANT TO SECTION 15‑203 AND WHO IS DETERMINED BY A PUPIL'S INDIVIDUALIZED EDUCATION PROGRAM TEAM TO BE AN APPROPRIATE PROVIDER BASED ON THE PUPIL'S INDIVIDUALIZED NEEDS.
Arizona lawmakers are giddy over this, however, IDEA (y'know, that pesky disabilities in education civil rights law the SecEd never heard of) clearly states that a teacher must be specially certified to teach students with disabilities. The federal law states (emphasis mine):
SEC. 612. [20 U.S.C. 1412] STATE ELIGIBILITY. 
(a) (14) PERSONNEL QUALIFICATIONS.— 
C) QUALIFICATIONS FOR SPECIAL EDUCATION TEACHERS.—The qualifications described in subparagraph (A) shall ensure that each person employed as a special education teacher in the State who teaches elementary school, middle school, or secondary school— 
(i) has obtained full State certification as a special education teacher (including participating in an alternate route to certification as a special educator, if such alternate route meets minimum requirements described in section 2005.56(a)(2)(ii) of title 34, Code of Federal Regulations, as such section was in effect on November 28, 2008), or passed the State special education teacher licensing examination, and holds a license to teach in the State as a special education teacher, except with respect to any teacher teaching in a public charter school who shall meet the requirements set forth in the State’s public charter school law; 
(ii) has not had special education certification or licensure requirements waived on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis; and 
(iii) holds at least a bachelor’s degree..
(D) POLICY.—In implementing this section, a State shall adopt a policy that includes a requirement that local educational agencies in the State take measurable steps to recruit, hire, train, and retain personnel who meet the applicable requirements described in this paragraph to provide special education and related services under this part to children with disabilities. 

I have no idea what in particular prompted AZ lawmakers to come up with this garbage, other than the usual reformy nonsense that regularly comes out of that state. Clearly, the wellbeing of students with disabilities is not anywhere on their list of priorities. This ranks up there with New Jersey's misguided attempt to lower the requirements of teachers and administrators who work in charter schools. Having teachers who do not know how to specifically address the needs of students with disabilities is no less than an attack on those students' civil rights. I hope parents and teachers push back hard on this. The children of Arizona deserve no less.

BTW, it's handy to have a copy of the law because you never know when the US Department of Education will have "technical" difficulties with only that particular education law's website for a couple of weeks. (To find a mostly complete mirror of the site from 2015 go here.) 

Monday, January 9, 2017

Follow Up To Who Is Voting On New Jersey's New Charter Regulations?

Last Sunday, I published a blog post about NJ State Board of Education (NJBOE) member, Peter Simon, and his family's philanthropic foundation, the William E. Simon Foundation. If it had not been for the New York Times piece, which mentioned his brother as a possible candidate for the Vatican Ambassadorship, I probably would never have taken the time to look closely at a Board member. 

I had decided to bring it up during public testimony at Wednesday's NJSBOE meeting. It was one of the rare days when testimony is permitted to be on any topic. I found out late Tuesday that Simon had stepped down from the Board. No one knew why. 

Wednesday morning, at the beginning of the NJSBOE meeting, Board President, Mark Biedron, announced that Peter Simon had stepped down. No reason was given. Biedron also said there had been discussion on "social media" about Simon's family's foundation and donations made to charters, and that Simon had abstained from voting. Biedron added, if Simon had remained on the Board, he would have abstained from voting on the new proposed charter regulations. 

Obviously, I was very glad to hear that, as were other people in attendance. Although, why mention it all? 

The day was filled with a lot of charter-related testimony, both for and against. As people representing entities who had received money from the Foundation spoke, I could't help but wonder if it would have mattered if Simon abstained. He still might have been tasked with listening to public testimony (not all board members do) and, presumably, providing some feedback to those who weren't there to hear testimony firsthand. 

This is not an indictment of Peter Simon. It's an honest question of how reasonable it is to presume the ability of anyone to separate their personal ties from their ability to perform due diligence for the public, with the public's interests foremost in mind. It also demonstrates the need to have transparency at all times. 

A couple of months ago, Mark Biedron introduced the new charter regulations with a nod to how hard the Department of Education (NJDOE) had worked on them with charter schools groups. I can't find meeting minutes from those meetings. They aren't posted anywhere that I can find. If someone has them, or can point me to them, I'd like to see who was in the room and what was discussed. There aren't that many charter players in New Jersey, so it's easy to guess who might have been in those meetings, and two of the biggest ones received money from the Simon Foundation. 

It's important to note Biedron made no mention of engaging anyone in the communities who are currently affected by the tremendous drain on public school funding that occurs wherever charter schools operate. Undoubtedly, those folks would have had a lot to say about the impact of making it easier for charter schools to expand. 

This all leads to a much bigger issue and that is how people come to be seated on the NJ State Board of Education. From the NJDOE website:
The New Jersey State Board of Education has 13 members who are appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the New Jersey State Senate. These members serve without compensation for six-year terms. By law, at least three members of the State Board must be women, and no two members may be appointed from the same county. (Please note: we are currently down 5 members) 
Since the governor also appoints the Commissioner of Education it's easy to see how this becomes a stacked deck really quickly. We happen to currently have a governor who is not interested in public education. He has spent his entire tenure slamming public schools and public school teachers while also shorting his own school funding formula by about $7 billion and calling public schools "failure factories." 

In theory, the State Board of Education should serve as "checks and balances" for anyone who is governor. They should be there for all students in the state and free from outside interests. The question is, Do we have that? Maybe even, Is that possible given how those positions are chosen? These are questions our next governor is going to have deal with. 


Here is the original testimony I prepared for last Wednesday.
I wanted to spend my time today talking about alternative assessments for ESSA accountability purposes. However, I recently came across what appears to be a conflict of interest related to one of the State Board of Education members.
I find myself in the unenviable position of having to point it out and to ask that they recuse themselves from voting on anything related to charter schools, including the new proposed charter regulations. 
The Board member is Peter Simon. He is Co-Chair of his family’s philanthropic foundation, the William E. Simon Foundation. The Foundation’s website has listings of grants made in 2014, 2015, and 2016. The 2015 and 2016 listing links are not working, but the 2014 links are. The 2014 listings on the Foundation website are not complete. The Foundation’s 990, publicly available on GuideStar, has the full list of grants made that year.
There are roughly $3.3 million in grants made to charter schools, charter associations, and groups who lobby for so-called school choice. Of those grants, three in particular, stand out: New Jersey Charter Schools Association, JerseyCAN, and the Association of American Educators who have a partnership with New Jersey Charter Schools Association. 
The reason they stand out is because New Jersey Charter Schools Association and JerseyCAN actively lobby this Board for expansion of charter schools, and currently, for the new proposed charter regulations. 
This appears to be a conflict of interest. I ask that Mr. Simon remove himself from any and all voting regarding the fate of charter schools or the charter industry. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Who Is Voting On New Jersey's New Charter Regulations?


The issue of conflict of interest has been coming up a lot lately. Just before the holiday weekend, a friend pointed out one of the choices for Ambassador to the Vatican, William E. Simon, Jr., is the brother of one of the members, J. Peter Simon, of the NJ State Board of Education (NJSBOE). The New York Times wrote about the possibilities of ambassadorship here

Curious, I decided to take a closer look at Peter Simon. He is, after all, helping to steer public education in New Jersey. Are there affiliations that make his seat on the SBOE problematic? 

It turns out, yes, maybe there are. You decide.

Peter's late father, William E. Simon, former US Treasury Secretary, served under President Nixon, beginning in 1974, through President Ford's administration, resigning in 1977. He is also the founder, along with his sons, of William E. Simon and Sons, LLC, a private equity firm which specializes in technology, information technology, education, and manufacturing. Peter is currently Co-Chairman of the Firm along with his brother, Bill. 

Bill, Sr. and his wife, Carol, created The William E. Simon Foundation in 1967. Their seven children all serve on the Board of Directors. Peter and Bill, Jr. are Co-Chairmen. According to the Foundation's website...
"The charitable philosophy that guided him (Bill, Sr.) in establishing Foundation’s purposes drew heavily on the thoughts expressed more than a century ago by Andrew Carnegie in The Gospel Of Wealth, where he wrote, “In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to rise the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all.” Helping those in need to realize the full promise of their own talent and drive is a large mission, but Mr. Simon was not a man to do things in a small way, and he always recognized the art of the possible."
In the 1990's the Foundation reviewed its giving practices and created a more formalized process for their grants. Presumably this was done to further the Vision Statement of the Foundation...
[T]o help inner-city youth and families gain access to education and community-based services that promote their independence, personal success, and full participation in America’s free, democratic society.
Their Mission Statement, in part, continues...
[S]upports programs that are intended to strengthen the free enterprise system and the moral and spiritual values on which it rests: individual freedom, initiative, thrift, self-discipline, and faith in God... the Foundation’s primary aim is to provide inner-city youth with environments, opportunities, and encouragement to develop the personal values and skills that will enable them to become independent, contributing members of society. The Foundation achieves this goal through its support of direct services and public policy research...In its direct service portfolio, the Foundation focuses primarily on two geographical areas: Jersey City and the South Bronx.
Sounds good so far, right? Let's take a look at their grant recipients. Their website has the recipient lists from 2014, 2015, and 2016. Guidestar provides 990's from 2014, back to 2012, before hitting their paywall. Many of the grants are to religiously affiliated groups, Catholic charities, Boy Scouts, Boy and Girls Clubs of America, Catholic schools, etc. All are in keeping with Bill, Sr.'s deep Catholic faith. 

There are also grants to charter schools, charter associations, and other education reform groups. That's where things get a bit sticky as we are heading into the first NJSBOE meeting of 2017. The second hearing is on the agenda for the new proposed charter school regulations. I wrote a piece in November about the public testimony taken at NJSBOE on the new regulations. You can read about that here

The proposed changes include: 

  • Permit a weighted lottery for charter school enrollment;
  • Establish an expedited renewal process for high-performing charters;
  • Permit single-purpose charter schools;
  • Ease the way for charter schools to secure facilities and capital funding;
  • Establish a pilot program for charter-specific teacher, administrator, and school business administrator certifications;
  • Streamline procedures around budgetary controls and fund monitoring; and
  • Enact other regulatory changes.

Bottom line for charter schools in New Jersey: No local control at all. Charters are approved by the NJ Commissioner of Education, not by the people living in the community affected. Charters are paid for directly out of the local district's public education school budget. Charters can expand without any local authorization or regard for the impact on the local public schools. Charter school operators do not have to disclose how public money is spent. Charter schools are not required to have elected school boards. Charter schools do not educate the same demographics as public schools, and as a result, are highly segregated. 

Keep these points in mind as you read through where the Foundation money goes. Ask yourself if Peter Simon should recuse himself from voting on the new charter regulations. In 2014, he oversaw the distribution of about $3.3 million to charter schools, associations, and organizations which support charter schools and school choice.  

I chose the 2014 year because the Foundation's website has a list of those donations along with the correct attributions, and GuideStar has the 2014 990 filing available for anyone to see. I cross-referenced the website with 990 filing.

From the Foundation's website: 2014
Association of American Educators Foundation: $100,000 for program support, including New Jersey. On their website, they claim to be an alternative to teachers unions. They have a page dedicated to responding to statements from the NEA. And, they have a page dedicated to New Jersey. The regional director's bio says she has taught in the classroom, been a college advisor, and been an education sales rep for a "major publishing company." That New Jersey page also has an announcement for their new partnership with the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. 

Brilla College Preparatory Charter School: $50,000 for technology and equipment to support a blended learning program.

Center for Education Reform: $2,500 for program support. Among the education issues CER supports are school choice and charter schools. 

Charter School Growth Fund: $500,000 (paid $250,000) for "Fund II support to grow high quality charter networks". "As a national nonprofit (CSGF), we make multi-year, philanthropic investments in talented education entrepreneurs building networks of great charter schools, and we provide them with support as they grow." In 2005, they created the National Fund for the purpose of "accelerating the growth of the nation's best charter schools." 

Children's Aid College Prep Charter School: $25,000 for Support for Life Coaches in the 2014-15 school year. 

Common Sense Institute of New Jersey: $2,500 for "Who's Leaving NJ And Why" Report

Educators 4 Excellence: $30,000 for "Program Support for New York programs. E4E is reform movement group for teachers and is heavily funded by the Gates and Broad Foundations."

Ethical Community Charter School: $50,000 for "Support for an Architect, a Fundraising Consultant, a Language Arts & Math Consultant, and a Development Officer in the 2014-15 school year." 

Families for Excellent Schools: $5,000 as a "token of appreciation" to the CEO who presented at the Jersey City Leadership Forum. FES is a pro-charter school group which organized and mobilizes parents to fight for charter schools and their expansion. 

Family Life Academy Charter School: $25,000 for a Wellness program. 

Foundation for Excellence in Education: $20,000 for program support. This is Jeb Bush's very reformy education group whose board includes Betsy DeVos and Joel Klein. Among the group's "reform agenda" is school choice, CBE, digital learning, and so on. 

Foundation for Opportunity in Education: $200,000 (paid $100,000) for program support. I couldn't find the website to this group. 

Golden Door Charter School: $37,752.00 for "Support for the purchase of Chrome books, laptops which will facilitate new NJ state testing in the 2013-14 school year."

Great Futures Charter High School for the Health Sciences: $209,000 for "Start-up costs and general operating support in the 2014-15 school year."

Harlem RBI: $15,000 for "Program Support for South Bronx site in the 2014-15 school year."

Harvard University: $65,000 for "Support for the education reform journal, EducationNext, in 2014."

Icahn Charter Schools: 
School #1 $25,400 for "Support for a professional development project for K-2 teachers in the 2014-15 school year."  
School #2 $22,500 for "Support for a math consultant in the 2014-15 school year." School #6 $12,880 for "Support for a professional development project for K-2 teachers in the 2014-15 school year." 
School #7 $12,220 for "Support for a professional development project for K-2 teachers in the 2014-15 school year." 

Institute for Justice: $25,000 for "Support for litigation work on school choice issues in 2014."

JerseyCAN: $10,000 for program support. This group heavily supports charter schools in New Jersey. 

KIPP Academy Charter School: $100,500 for "Support for the implementation of a new ELA program and a new math program."

National Alliance for Public Charter Schools: $65,000 for "Support for their work to foster a strong charter school sector in order to increase the academic achievement of all students in 2014."

National Counsel on Teacher Quality: $5,000 for program support. Diane Ravitch has written about NCTQ and this piece in the Washington Post is instructive. 

National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation: $30,000 for "Support of its charter school legal defense program, which seeks to prevent compulsory teacher unionization at charter schools nationwide, in 2014."

New Jersey Charter Schools Association: $25,000 for "Support for the communication campaign for this charter school policy and service organization in 2014."

Success Academy Charter Schools: $150,000 for "Support for a parent engagement campaign in the 2013-14 school year."

From GuideStar, the 990 filing for 2014: (These are the donations NOT listed on the Foundation's website. The 990 does not provide information about what the grant was used for beyond a simple designation, like "education.")
Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools: $5,000
Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools: $5,000
Alliance for School Choice: $100,000
Alliance for School Choice: $5,000
Children's Scholarship Fund: $170
Children's Scholarship Fund: $250,000
Children's Scholarship Fund: $245,845
Civic Builders: $333,333
Civic Builders: $100,00
EdVestors: $5,000
Family Life Academy Charter School: $5,000
Family Life Academy Charter School: $25,000
Foundation for Opportunity in Education: $100,000 (The Foundation website showed a total grant of $200,000 and $100,000 actually paid. This is the other half of the grant.)
Friends of Learning Community Charter School: $97,500
KIPP New York Inc.: $250,000
Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy: $50,000
Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy: $75,000
Parents Challenge: $1,000
Philadelphia School Partnership: $10,000
Success Academy Charter Schools: $5,000
Success Academy Charter Schools: $250,000
Thomas B. Fordham Institute: $50,000
Willow Creek Foundation: $5,000
Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation: $25,000

The 2015 and 2016 Foundation website lists have errors in them. When you click through any of the grantees, the information page shows the same information for every grantee, so we can't see the amount of the grant or what it was for. Unfortunately, GuideStar does not yet have the 990's for those years. Here are the related grantees from the Foundation's website: 

New Jersey Charter Schools Association
National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation
Thomas B. Fordham Institute
JerseyCAN
Family Life Academy Charter School
Ethical Community Charter School
Educators4Excellence
Children's Aid College Prep Charter School 
Association of American Educators Foundation
Foundation for Excellence in Education
Hyde Leadership Charter School
Harlem RBI
Hunts Point Alliance for Children
Friends of Learning Community Charter School
Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Soaring Heights Charter School
74 Million
Brilla College Preparatory Charter School
50CAN

I feel the need to state, unequivocally, I have no issues with people making money. I hope no one is doing an eyeroll just because of his family's history or their ability to make money. The family fortune is not the point of this piece. 

However, when that money is used, philanthropically, to further the privatization of public education, and the person who is overseeing those donations while also serving on a public board which has influence over the course of the industry they significantly support, I think we have a serious conflict of interest where the charter regulations are concerned. 



Friday, December 23, 2016

Parents and Teachers, It's Time to Organize


Last month, at the NJEA Convention, Mark Weber delivered the plenary speech. You can read the whole speech here. He called for teachers to organize. Keep in mind this was before Betsy DeVos' nomination for US Secretary of Education (SecEd) and before Jeff Sessions' nomination for US Attorney General (USAG). 
"It is not an exaggeration to say that right now, public education hangs in the balance. Teacher workplace rights are in serious jeopardy. The ability of NJEA to protect the future of New Jersey’s outstanding public education system – by any measure, one of the finest in the world, in spite of this state’s recent abdication of its role to fully fund its schools – is under dire threat.
There is only one course to take: we must organize. We must stand strong, we must stand together, and we must refuse to give into desperation. Our families, our colleagues, and our students have always counted on us when they needed us the most – we must not now, nor ever, stop fighting for them or yes, that’s right, for ourselves."
Yes. Please. Teachers, especially those of you teach in sparkly districts, who have the best resources (comparatively), please start speaking up. If you feel like you can't do it in the district in which you teach, then do it in the one in which you live. 

If you don't already, come to just one State Board of Education meeting on open public testimony days (like the one coming up on January 4th). Or come to just one Assembly or Senate Education Committee meeting when there is a bill that directly affects you or your students. Yes, your state union is there, already speaking up, but I promise, just like with parents, our legislators need to hear directly from you. They do not get that kind of firsthand information from anyone.

Participate when your union asks. Make those phone calls. Write those letters. Numbers do matter. 

To those of you who don't like your union leadership, I urge you to have conversations with them. Tell them what you need from them. Offer to help. Get involved. Hold them accountable. No, you really don't have to agree on everything. If you don't fight back, there won't be a teaching profession. This is not a time to leave it to others. Yes, I know, this paragraph is terribly simplified. This is work. 

I know. It's difficult. It's also necessary. 

Parents, it's not just teachers who need to organize. I know how difficult it is to find the time to participate. I know how difficult it is to put yourself out there and sometimes have to say things that others do not want to hear or acknowledge. I know how easy it is to complain and not actually do anything. I know how easy it is to keep your head down. 

Fight that urge to only complain. Fight that urge to say, "Well, it's not directly affecting my children." Fight that urge to leave it to others. Fight that urge to look away when those who are standing up make you uncomfortable or aren't doing what you only imagine you would do. 

I know. It's difficult. It's also necessary.

Where to start? 

Look in the right-hand column of this blog. There is a list of education bloggers; some are parents, some are teachers, some are education scholars. All are advocates, dedicated to public education for all children. 

Attend your local and state board of education meetings. Go visit your state and federal representatives. Remember, they work for YOU. It doesn't matter if you belong to a different political party. They weren't elected to serve only constituents from their party. It's not that difficult to get appointments. If you can't do that, write a letter. Make a phone call. All of them have staff who work on the issues that are important to you, including education policy. Ask them what they are doing to protect public education for all students. 

It's ok if doing these things makes you uncomfortable. There are many of us who do these things all the time. And, the longer we do it, the more connections we make, and the better we get at it. It's ok if your voice shakes. What's most important is that you find your voice and use it. 



Edited to add: Jessica Smock wrote a piece for Scary Mommy What Outraged Parents Can Do To Defend Public Education After the Confirmation of Betsy Devos, referencing this blog post. Many thanks to Jessica. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What Will Happen To Special Education?

Yet another reason to be concerned about Jeff Sessions as US Attorney General. Special Education. Back in 2000, when he was an Alabama state senator (formerly the state's attorney general), Sessions made an utterly ignorant, and now potentially dangerous, statement about special education and the federal law which guarantees the rights of students with disabilities, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). You can read his whole statement here

It's difficult to pull quotes out of the text because the entire statement is so heinous. Yes, students with disabilities have rights. No, those rights, and those exercising those rights are not "a big factor in accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America." The disqualifier at the beginning of that paragraph does not excuse the ridiculousness of the statement either. So glad to hear that he didn't want to end IDEA.

Sessions quotes parts of letters written to him by teachers who are frustrated by their students and what they described as problems with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). While I am sure there are teachers who are frustrated by what they see in their schools, to blame students with disabilities for those frustrations is absurd. 

Sessions does give a nod to the lack of funding associated with IDEA. It has never been fully funded, nor has it come close to the goal of 40% funded. Ever. He should have been railing against a system that purposely defunds, or underfunds, education mandates, no matter whom they directly affect. To blame the students and IDEA is absurd. 

As I read through Sessions' statement and the statements by teachers, I saw what, in my opinion, is violation after violation of those students' rights. IDEA is not a permission slip for students to behave badly. It does not prevent "discipline." It does not require students to be mainstreamed with their neurotypical peers. 

What IDEA does do is requires states, and therefore school districts, to place students in a Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). It requires them to conduct Functional Behavior Analyses, using those results to create Behavior Plans for exactly the scenarios which are described in Sessions' statement. This is not rocket science. This appears to have been completely lost on every one of those teachers and their administrators and Sessions. It also appears to be lost on these people that wrong classroom settings, inappropriate placements, and lack of services contribute to inappropriate behavior - in any setting. 

Before someone piles on here, yes, there are students, unfortunately, who do act out and have no self-regulation or control. God bless the teachers and paras who teach and assist them. It is a reality. However, it should not be happening in a general education setting. LRE does not mean a general education, mainstreamed setting. LRE means providing the best environment for that student. It's a simple concept that is grossly misused. 

I was astonished at the claims that teachers are leaving the profession because of lawsuits brought by special education parents. The statement implies parents are going after teachers. That's not how the law works. It's absurd to state that as though it is fact. 

The last story is from a superintendent. He laments not being able to mete out similar discipline to two students who brought weapons to school. One student, with no disability, was given a 1-year suspension. The other student, with a disability and IEP, was placed for 45 days in an alternate school setting before returning to his regular school. 

I'm twitching as I write this because I cannot believe the rank stupidity of this decades-long educator. IDEA has an entire section dedicated to discipline (Sec. 300.530). In fact, there's even a section on weapons. He most certainly could have suspended that student with an IEP for 1-year, just like the first student. His own ignorance of the law made for the inequity. Further, it made his reference to Animal Farm ("All are equal, but some are more equal than others.") even more inappropriate. 

It also demonstrates that Sessions, as Alabama's former attorney general, either didn't know the law, or he knew and used this sorry excuse of a story to fortify his position that special education is ruining public education and teachers' careers. Shame on them both! 

Unbelievably, the superintendent continues with this ditty: "I became a teacher in 1965 and I do not remember hearing of gun shootings prior to 1975 when Congress began telling ten percent of our students you are not responsible." Gaslighting at its best, folks. When in doubt make an absurd claim, based on nothing, and blame it on the special ed kid. Disgusting. 

Sessions ended his abhorrent statement with this: "I think these teachers make a point. It is a matter we need to give careful consideration to, not overreact, not undermine the great principles of the Disabilities Act Program. But at the same time, we need to say that a child is not allowed to commit crimes, to disrupt classroom, to curse teachers, principals and students, and abuse them and do so with impunity."

Again, that is not what IDEA actually says. You'd think a state attorney general would know that. What will the enforcement of IDEA look like under a US Attorney General who doesn't know the law? Or, perhaps worse, one who does know the law and ignores it?



Edit to add: Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post republished part of this blog in her column Answer Sheet: Trump’s pick for attorney general once linked special education law to ‘decline in civility’ in classrooms. Thank you to Valerie!