Sunday, August 28, 2016

New Jersey's Special Education Ombudsman

On August 2nd, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) released an Amended Notice of Vacancy for the new position of an Education Program Development Specialist 3 (Ombudsman). You can read the details here. This is a position State Senator Ruiz, Chair of the State Senate Education Committee, had actually wanted to be a Public Advocate. In the world of New Jersey politics, however, that desire got turned into a much watered down Ombudsman position within NJDOE. 

When Senator Ruiz introduced bill S451 which created the position, well over a year ago, I happened to be at the Committee meeting. I was uncharacteristically unprepared, but provided testimony anyway. I told the Committee, parents and students don't need another hoop to jump through. We have a difficult enough time securing classification and services without having yet another obstacle. If the Senator was serious about this position being autonomous, with the actual power to effectively provide help, then great, we need the help. If she couldn't deliver a truly autonomous position, then we don't need it. Senator Ruiz said her hope for the position also encompassed the ability to bring together, or at least help parents identify, the help of other New Jersey agencies, like NJ Division of Developmental Disabilities. The bill passed through the Senate and Assembly and on January 19, 2016, the Governor signed it into law. 

Following its passing, I reached out to Senator Ruiz's office hoping to find a reporting line that was not inside NJDOE. It was suggested the position be housed in NJDOE, but reporting to the NJ Department of Justice. It certainly sounded like the most reasonable way to keep the position from becoming an internal NJDOE position. It was a way to maintain a certain level of autonomy. The idea, apparently, went into a black hole and seven months later we have an Education Program Development Specialist reporting directly into NJDOE. *sigh*

Now, instead of having an advocate for parents and students, we have another staffer at NJDOE. Their job? From the official description:
Under general direction of a manager in the Office of Special Education Programs, the Ombudsman supervises the design, production, and delivery of curricula, training, program improvement, and related education services to education agencies to ensure achievement of mandated goals and to meet existing and emerging needs; performs mandated regulatory functions; performs professional work with minimal supervision in monitoring and evaluation of education programs in school districts statewide. 
Got that? The Ombudsman works for Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) within NJDOE and for an unspecified manager. They are doing all kinds of work that has nothing to do with supporting parents and students in their quest for classification and services, as a public advocate would have. The description goes on:
The Ombudsman may be responsible for the provision of information and communication strategies to parents, students, educators and interested members of the public regarding the special education process, supports, evaluations and services according to State and federal laws and regulations governing special education in a pleasant, positive and efficient manner; performs work of a professional nature in a confidential manner with utmost fidelity; does other related duties.
Got that? This person will tell you what the special ed regs are. Seriously? Isn't that what OSEP already does? Isn't that what SPAN and virtually every other disability-related group in the state already do? 

We know what the regs say. We just don't have anyone willing to enforce them! Not OSEP, not OCR. What we need is an actual Public Advocate. As with everything related to education in this state, it looks like we will be waiting a long time (read: when we get a new Governor) before we get that position. 


  1. MAY? MAY? Then again maybe not. This ombudsmen will work primarily with school districts? They will offer me "information"? I can and have read the law. They will offer me "communication strategies"? I don't need dto be told how to talk to child study, I need them to read and follow the law, and I need help forcing them to do so without bankrupting my family with lawyers fees!

    1. Yes. Exactly. On the one hand, not surprising in the least given this NJDOE. On the other hand, disappointing NJDOE didn't even bother to attempt something close to what was originally intended.