Tuesday, December 12, 2017

IDEA Is Still The Law Of The Land

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know the US Department of Education (USDOE) rescinded 72 Dear Colleague and other letters of explanation to state education agencies regarding special education. 

Dear Colleague or guidance letters clarify a point in the law. In this case, we're talking about Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Generally, these letters are issued because state education agencies ask for clarification of the law. As advocates, we want this because we don't want local school districts misinterpreting or ignoring the law. Children get hurt when this happens. 

USDOE does, from time to time, "clean house," but as far as I can tell, this many at once is rare. They are removed because new guidance or new regulations replace them. In and of itself, removal is not a bad thing.

It's really difficult to not be skeptical of anything that happens under DeVos' tenure. Her general ignorance of the law, feigned or not, is reason enough to be on guard. 

When the department released the original list of rescinded letters, there was no explanation for their deletion. Later, they did release another list along with a brief comment about why. By that time, I had been through a good portion of the list and was able to cross-reference what I had already found. 

The majority of letters that I could find (not all were listed with a link) were, in fact, outdated. Many had been replaced with either new or updated guidance, or by changes in the law. In the case of letters about how money should be spent, those pertained to fiscal years that are past. 

A couple of things stood out to me. 

First, the guidance letters on transition and vocational training (not IDEA-specific). The federal program related to those letters no longer exists. Further guidance and programs do exist under Office Disability Employment Policy, which falls under the US Department of Labor. It's clear, the need exists for those kinds of programs in high school, and to age 21. Certainly, NJ could use a much bigger emphasis on trades and vocational training for students with disabilities...and really, students without. 

The other issue is the letter about Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) in preschool. The 2012 letter was replaced in January 2017 with a lot of language about "inclusion" before they got to what is essentially a re-hash of the rescinded 2012 letter about what LRE actually means. To me, this letter is confusing and problematic because it promotes "inclusion" and then reminds everyone of LRE, like it's an afterthought.

I know from my own experiences with parents around the state that local districts either don't understand LRE, or use it as an excuse to provide only inclusion settings to all but the most severely disabled. What causes that ignorance, willful or otherwise, is anyone's guess. Mine would be a caustic mix of lack of funding available to districts and administrators doing as little as possible while hoping parents don't know better. Yes. I'm very, very cynical about LRE. 

What's important to remember.

Please keep in mind that any guidance letter that is rescinded and replaced, or not replaced, but regulation is still in effect, does not change the compliance requirements of IDEA. Those letters are merely further clarification of statute or regulation, usually brought on by a significant level of clarification requests from state agencies. IDEA remains in effect...at least for now. 

As always, if I have missed something, please let me know in the comments below or via PM. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Parents Deserve to Know Who Is Being Appointed to State Board of Ed

I spent a rather surreal day at NJ Senate's Judiciary Committee meeting yesterday. This Committee, headed by Democrat Nick Scaturi, is responsible for approving nominations of judges and members of various pubic boards - everything from Rutgers to the Delaware River Authority - including the NJ State Board of Education (SBOE). The Committee has been "interviewing" and passing nominees on for a full Senate vote. 

Yesterday was a bit of an eye-opener. Apparently, "interviewing" is a euphemism for thanks for coming to see us, or some version of that, followed by yes votes to move them along for a full Senate vote. To be fair, particularly in the case of the judges, these are people who have worked hard in their careers and are undoubtedly qualified to do the job they've been appointed for, but that's not the point of a public interview. That's in place for all of us, the taxpayers and constituents of this state. 

There have been two Judiciary Committee meetings in the last few weeks. Members of Save Our Schools NJ have been there to protest the lack of transparency in the SBOE appointment process. Susan Cauldwell wrote about those two Committee meetings here.

Why, then, were the SBOE nominees not interviewed?  Senator Scutari explained that the Committee doesn't have to. Well, since the Senate decides on how the nominees are handled, "doesn't have to" doesn't cut it. There is little transparency, and frankly, no checks or balances on the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE), so knowing who is being appointed is kinda important. 

At this Committee meeting, three of us testified in complaint of the complete lack of transparency in this process. Given that education makes up about one third of New Jersey's budget and the SBOE is gatekeeper of how that money is spent, you'd think these Senators would want to know who the nominees are. 

As you watch the video of our testimony, please note a few things: 1. Several Senators, including the Chair, Nick Scutari, walked away; 2. Senator Weinberg, Senate Majority Leader, is interrupted by Senator Scutari and he immediately moves to end her effort to have the nominees appear before the Committee; and 3. None of them appear to have any idea what the full term length of a SBOE member is, nor whether the nominees will only be fulfilling the remaining time on the seats they are being given. It's the latter, thank goodness, but please, is it too much to ask that the Committee members do the most basic of homework before blowing off multiple requests over the last month to have the nominees appear for "interview"?  

Why would any Democrat (yes, that includes Senator Sweeney, who at least this time didn't stick around to make sure his boys did what they've apparently been told to do) want to do the bidding of Governor Christie at this last stage of his service when many of these seats have been open for YEARS? 

What's the rush? Is this about the Budget? The grandstanding around the State House over the education budget has been going on for months. There appears to be a truce between Assembly Speaker Prieto and Senate President Sweeney. However, I'll remind them both that their deal completely excludes students with disabilities - no change to the census-based funding formula and no extra money for extraordinary aid. 

Is this about pushing through the charter school regulations? Both Mark Biedron, former SBOE President, and Joe Fisicaro, SBOE Vice-President, opposed those regulations and appear to have been removed because of that opposition. 

As the voting to move the SBOE nominees out of Committee ensued, Senator Bob Smith, also a Democrat, made a comment about the three SBOE nominees on their agenda. First, he thought there were only two nominees (the third was listed on the last page of the agenda which he apparently didn't see or know about), before launching into a rebuke about how the nominees "are not schlubs". Yes. He said that. Watch the video. He said it repeatedly, also noting they all have education-related experience. In Smith's world, none of the judges should have appeared for "interview" either because they certainly aren't "schlubs."

In the case of yesterday's nominees, they did have education-related experience. However, their experience conveys nothing about their opinion on public education issues which are regularly addressed by the State Board of Education. However, the argument we have is about PROCESS not CONTENT. His comments did not address process. Although, content should also concern everyone, and here are a couple of examples why:

I would love to know what Bob Smith thinks about other nominees from the last two Judiciary Committees hearings who also sailed through with no "interview" and included Andy Mulvihill, a returning SBOE member, who is CEO of Crystal Springs Resort Real Estate. He builds/owns golf courses and resorts. No education background at all. His bio on his company's website mentions other associations, but not NJ State Board of Education. I'm not sure that qualifies Mulvihill as a "schlub" in Senator Smith's parlance, but if I were Smith, I'd have a ton of questions about why he's sitting on that board.

Also included in the waving through of nominees was Mary Elizabeth Gazi, Esq., a former colleague of Governor Christie, whose practice is "representation of healthcare professionals in medical malpractice litigation and on products liability and general liability defense." The rest of her bio can be found here.  No education background that I could discern either. So is she a "schlub"? Would it have been worth finding out why Gazi wants to be on the SBOE? I think so. It sounds like she's a successful litigation attorney, but has no experience in public education. 

One of yesterday's nominees is a former special education teacher and founded a track team for Special Olympics of NJ. That's all great and I would encourage parents whose children had Mary Beth Berry for a teacher weigh in on their experiences with her. On the one hand, it would be great to have a special education advocate on the Board. There isn't currently anyone with that background serving. However, she has not been in the public sphere, that I can find, advocating for students with disabilities. If I'm wrong about that, please let me know. I would love to know where she stands on many issues related to special education. I can't believe our State Senators aren't even curious enough to ask and what's more, think it's a good idea to berate us for asking them to interview these candidates publicly! 

You need a scorecard to keep track of who is on and off the Board. As it stands now, they have 11 of the 13 seats filled. Edie Fulton, so far, has not been removed as her replacement's (Nina Washington) nomination was withdrawn. Angel Cordero's nomination was also withdrawn and replaced with Mary Beth Berry. 

As usual, our kids deserve so much better than this. I hope the women of Senate Judiciary Committee continue to ask for public interviews. My thanks especially to Senator Weinberg and Senator Gill for continuing to fight for public education. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

New Jersey's Insider Special Education Ombudsman

Yesterday, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) announced the appointment of an acting Special Education Ombudsman. You can read the press release here. It's taken an impressive ten months to fill this position which was officially announced in August 2016 with an Amended Notice of Vacancy (I wrote about that here), having been signed into law by Governor Christie in January 2016. 

When the bill was first introduced in November 2015 by Senator Ruiz to the NJ Senate Education Committee, she did so knowing the Governor would not support a Public Advocate. In other words, there was no support for a truly independent advocate for students with disabilities in the state of New Jersey. Understanding that many families face significant obstacles to identification, evaluation, classification, and placement/services, the Special Education Ombudsman position was created. 

At the time, I plead with the Committee to not create this position if it would only be another roadblock or hurdle for parents and students to navigate. We don't need another office tasked with providing "information" about services. We need someone to enforce the law.

Once the Ombudsman bill was signed into law, I asked to have the position report to somewhere else other than NJDOE. The NJ Department of Justice was floated and ultimately rejected. The position would be in and report to NJDOE. 

Sen. Ruiz said she expected the person chosen to be objective. Great. Glad to hear it. However, anyone who has spent time as a special ed parent or advocate can attest to the difficulty of securing proper services in this state. It doesn't matter what the demographics of the district are, grossly negligent underfunding has impacted everyone. 

In the spirit of Senator Ruiz's intention, an independent and objective person, whom did Kimberley Harrington, Commissioner of Education for the State of New Jersey, choose? Dr. Dolores Walther, an investigator with NJDOE's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). While Dr. Walther may be the most competent person on the planet, she is certainly not an independent and objective agent. 

I'm sure to catch a lot of heat for that opinion, but when districts don't fulfill their responsibilities, and OSEP behaves as an agent for the districts, an ombudsman that is and has been a part of OSEP is not going to be helpful to the people who need a truly independent ombudsman. 

Parents and students deserved so much better than this. I certainly hope the next governor will consider a true Public Advocate. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Inclusion and What It Means From Our Kids' Point of View

It's that time of year. Graduations. So much possibility. For many high school students it means college, for some it means entering the trades or training programs. For a very few, it means entering transition programs, hopefully, pursuing what they love. This time of year also means graduation from college, and for some, from those transition programs. 

I have a guest post today. It's from a dear friend whose daughter is an incredibly talented young woman who also happens to have a disability. She's very lucky in her parents, who have tirelessly fought to provide her with support to pursue her passion for music. As she graduates from Berkshire Hills Music Academy (BHMA), she enters into the "cliff" phase of life for people with disabilities. The next fight is to find a place where her talents are not just appreciated, but celebrated. That is no small task. 

I'll warn you to have a box of tissues handy as you read my friend's post and watch the video of her daughter's speech at graduation. 

What a day yesterday ...so full of possibility.
Today we are back home, still basking in Julia's accomplishments, but also wondering, how to make it all possible. How to help her fulfill her dream.
After listening to the 15 BHMA graduate's speak about, their struggles, fears and now, their accomplishments....you can only see how important it is, to educate, support, give opportunities and include. 
What we were reassured, after hearing them, is that they may be differently abled, but they are surely ABLE.
The Keynote speaker was Dan Habib, photojournalist and documentarian (award-winning film Including Samuel). (See his TEDTalk on inclusion here.)
As father of a disabled child, he spoke from the heart about Inclusion.He relayed how he has seen firsthand how his son's presence has brought out the better in those around him and how at the same time his life has been enriched with the interaction.
As a parent of a special needs child, our learning comes every day, with every moment. Although it's no easy road, it's one full of reward, when accomplishment comes. Yet, it's difficult to do it alone. All we want is for our children to have opportunities and acceptance. Not much to ask, you say?... in reality, difficult to achieve.
As our speaker said (and I'm paraphrasing) having these special individuals participate in our communities fully, will makes us all better for it .As you will hear firsthand from Julia, to some it may come as a surprise, that our "Happy" girl, who is known, for always having a beautiful smile on her face, at times that smile , was not in her heart.
I ask you all to help us and commit to continuing to together build a stronger caring community with INCLUSION.
Here is Julia's speech Now take out the tissue box....#inclusion #differentlyabled #danhabib #bhma

NJ Parents - The Data System You Haven't Heard Of

Dear NJ Parents,

NJ's Education to Earnings Data System (NJEEDS) is here. Never heard of it? Didn't think so. It's a longitudinal database, sometimes referred to as P20W. The aim is to collect data on students, beginning in kindergarten, going through 12th grade. Then tracks through college, if the student stays in-state, and then into the workforce. Once in the workforce, the database keeps track of wages. 

States are creating these databases because the federal government isn't allowed to, although they have been helping fund their creation. At some point, someone will figure out a way to legally link all of the state databases. 

Things to consider and hopefully receive answers to...

Foremost, when are parents going to be formally notified by NJDOE, not only about the existence of the database, but what exactly is being collected and potentially shared, and in what form? Who is going to assure the accuracy of data shared? Is there a mechanism to correct errors?

Who has ultimate responsibility for the protection of the data? How will parents be notified if breaches occur?

This goes hand in hand with what is being collected - protection of data includes not collecting what you don't need. How selective has the process been in deciding what gets collected and who made those decisions?

If discipline data are collected, at what point are that data erased so we don't end up in some dystopian scenario where detentions in middle school somehow interfere with college placement or job attainment?

Can parents choose to not have their kids participate in this?

What is the expiry date on the data - both raw and what are meted out for study?

Will parents, and ultimately the subjects, be notified when their data are released for study? Will they know who is using it and for what purpose? 

With respect for students who don't want to go to college, does NJ workforce development see value in the trades? Are they promoting or supporting them? If some distinguishing factor can be identified in the early grades, will those student be supported in their abilities?

Regarding wage outcomes, will this data ultimately be used to alter courses or degree program options if wages are deemed "too low"? In California, their version of this system, although far less comprehensive, informs decisions to remove courses or degree programs from the state network of schools. 

I understand the value from a workforce development perspective. Obviously, it's a plus to know who is in your potential workforce pipeline. That knowledge can be, and has been, used to entice companies to locate in certain states (MS does this through use of an app. Potential employers can see how many of a particular type of college student, or certified student there are at any given moment.). This may well be of great value to the next governor as they attempt to bring businesses to New Jersey. 

The question is, how do we do this while providing the greatest safeguards to the data and the greatest transparency of its use?

The bigger question is, what is the purpose of education, both in the lower grades and at the university level? Is it for job training based on the workplace needs of the day? Or is it to create well-rounded, thinking, citizens who can adapt to any environment? 

Back in December, I attended a 2-day seminar: Forum on New Jersey's Education, Higher Education, and Workforce P20W Longitudinal Database System. New Jersey Department of Education, High Education, NJ legislators, and a several states were there to discuss the merits and lessons of P20W systems. I'll write more about that experience in another post. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

PARCC Refusals and Doing the Right Thing

Last month, I wrote about some ridiculously punitive actions being taken against students whose parents had refused PARCC and the PARCC practice exercises. You can read about 3rd graders in detention here. As it was last year, as soon as the PARCC testing window began, so did the stories of intimidation by administrators to force students to participate in PARCC. Some examples of last year's craziness can be read here and here.

But what about districts who treat parents and students with just simple, common decency? Fortunately, those stories are out there too. They tend to be quiet. I certainly cannot blame any administrator for not wanting the punitive NJDOE spotlight on them. 

Here are just a few quotes from parents. I am not naming parents, students, or districts on purpose. Thanks to the parents who came forward to share their experiences. I hope their stories serve as examples to follow for the districts who are not treating students and parents like this. 

From Union County:
"I know there are lots of angry posts about treatment by opting out of PARCC, so I'd like to share positive experience... yes I said positive.We have a 4th grader in the XYZ district and we have opted him out of PARCC testing this coming week. We met no resistance from his teacher and none from his principal. In fact, his teacher provided us the following details so that both my son and I could be prepared for the testing week:
1. Exact testing time so that if we wished to bring him to school late we could, but he would be marked tardy for all days late to school (fair enough)
2. Where he would be while testing would be conducted
3. What he would be doing/allowed to do during the testing time: His teacher has gone the extra mile to give him work sheets and assignments on areas that he has needed a refresher on (not busy work) and reading assignments that are aligned with his reading enrichment teacher. In addition he may bring reading material, word searches crossword puzzles etc to do if he has extra time.
4. Pack a snack and a water bottle.
I know this is typically not the norm and I feel that this organization is more on the part of the individual teacher rather than the school administrators, but I appreciate the fact that we were met with zero resistance and so far no unpleasantries from the start of the opt-out process to present. Maybe it's because we discussed this with his teacher first, expressing our concerns about PARCC, then sent an email to both his teacher and principal, and finally the formal written letter as requested by the school.Thank you for letting me share our experience so far..."

From Essex County:
"There are other districts with humane and respectable practices. I live in one. It's important to note that it can be done if the administration is competent, courageous and ethical."
From Somerset County: 
"I have a positive experience with teachers, and administration in XYZ district. I sent written request.. it was approved n teacher told me that the school is having a separate room for opt-outs! Superintendent office tried to non-pushy to tell me why I should opt-in but I said no thanks n they said ok."
From Morris County:
"Positive experience in XYZ district. Even skipped most of the school form they provided (you're supposed to initial next to various statements (I understand and agree that Parcc is not a high stakes test, etc). Last year I attached a second file explaining why I wouldn't initial them. This year I just left blank and waited to see if they pushed back. Received a confirmation email from our elementary principal for our 3rd grader, and a phone call and email from the Asst Super for our 6th grader. I do think the call was in part to feel me out on how confident I was about refusing (just a hunch), but when she said 'I'm calling in regards to your refusal for Parcc for student name removed', I said 'Okay great, thanks' and then she stumbled over some words and said she was calling just to confirm."
From Cape May County:
"Positive experience here as well, in Cape May County. This marks the 3rd year for refusing PARCC (8th, 9th, and 10th grades; both intermediate and high school) and I've had nothing but pleasant experiences. This year, I was actually notified that I could bring my son into school after testing was complete for the day. I enjoyed spending the extra time with him, and driving him into school, for once. 
Everything has always been kept hush-hush in our particular school district and I believe it's because they realize the more resistance the school creates, the more students that figure out you can actually refuse PARCC. Unfortunately, the parents in our district aren't well informed, or simply don't care. I'm not sure which, probably a bit of both? But, each year, my son usually 'spills the beans' and has a couple groups of friends asking me how to refuse PARCC. 
I just simply direct their parents to the SOS, NJ, website to find the pre formatted refusal letter." 
The link to the Save Our Schools NJ (SOSNJ) information about refusing PARCC can be found here. In 2015, 233 districts were handling refusals without incident. SOSNJ created a list which can be found on their Facebook page here. Delran and Bloomfield Boards of Education were early leaders on this.

Our kids deserve more like this. 

If you have a positive story to share, please post in the comments. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

PARCC Turmoil in NJ - So What Else Is New?

The above picture was taken yesterday at a parents & kids protest of the PARCC exams outside NJ Senator Steve Sweeney's West Deptford office. This colorful bunch gathered to encourage Sen. Sweeney to post SCR132 to the floor for a vote. 

Last month, the Resolution, ACR215, passed through the Assembly quickly. Roll call from the vote can been seen here.

Since the Assembly passing, many people have been pressing Senator Sweeney to Co-Sponsor and bring the Concurrent Resolution to the floor. Senator Teresa Ruiz, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, has also been asked to bring the resolution to her Committee. So far, she has refused. Ironic, no?

A Concurrent Resolution does not require the signature of the governor. If it passes both houses, the resolution goes to the State Board of Education. They then have 30 days to amend their graduation requirements or propose to amend the current NJ State Law.

What does the current State Law actually say about graduation? Conveniently, it's spelled out in the resolutions,
"section 6 of P.L.1979, c.241 (C.18A:7C-6) was amended to provide that the State graduation proficiency test “be administered to all 11th grade pupils and to any 11th or 12th grade pupil who has previously failed to demonstrate mastery of State graduation proficiency standards on said test”
"Beginning in the 1993-1994 school year, the State satisfied the statutory requirement for a graduation proficiency test by administering the High School Proficiency Test, and later its successor the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), to all 11th grade students in the fall. Any student who did not demonstrate proficiency was retested in the spring and, if necessary, in the fall and spring of the subsequent school year..." If the student doesn't pass HSPA, the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA) was available to them. There was also a portfolio option.
Got that? The graduation requirement is 11th grade, 12th if necessary, and it's the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), or AHSA, if necessary.

What are the current graduation requirements, approved by the State Board of Education this past summer? (Hint: Not HSPA, given in 11th or 12th grade)
PARCC English Language Arts 10th grade and Algebra I as an end of year test (meaning 7th, 8th, 9th, or 10th grade). If the student doesn't pass alternative exams (PSAT, SAT, ACT, ASVAB, Accuplacer) are available to them. For Class of 2021, those alternative exams will no longer be available for graduation purposes. The student must pass PARCC ELA 10, Algebra I plus all other PARCC tests available for end of year courses, which includes: Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, ELA 9, ELA 10, and ELA 11. Yes. That's SIX tests over many years.
The takeaway here is the graduation requirements are clearly in direct conflict with NJ State Law. Parents, you should be really angry about this. 

If you want to read an in-depth post about the law, Sarah Blaine wrote a brilliant post last year about it, and you should absolutely take the time to read it, here

Lots of calls, emails, and tweets plus yesterday's rally appear to have pushed Senators Ruiz and Sweeney to send this letter to SBOE President, Mark Biedron and to Kimberley Harrington, Acting Commissioner of NJDOE. 

Clearly, Senator Sweeney agrees with SCR132. Why has he dragged this out for weeks? I know I would feel much better about this if he brought it for vote. 

Now, we have to hope this letter and discussion of the graduation requirements are on the agenda for the next State Board of Ed meeting on May 3rd. There also happens to be open public testimony (aka talk about what you want) that day. 

Please. I love having company. I know the State Board of Ed would love to meet you and hear from you too. Sign up here.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Another Loss for Paterson Students

NorthJersey.com reports that online speech therapy is up next for students with disabilities in the Paterson School District. This, after the Education Law Center filed a complaint against the district for not delivering services to students with Individual Education Plans. 

Imagine having online services in place of having a therapist in the room with the students in Ridgewood or Princeton or Saddle River. You can't? I can't either. This is the latest hit to some of New Jersey's most vulnerable students. 

53 students in School 18, an elementary school, will be the test subjects for this program. I cannot support using a service that separates the student from a therapist. Students need to have the therapist in the room with them, directly interacting with them, and providing feedback that includes body language. 

How does this work for the student who needs feeding therapy? What about students with intellectual disabilities? What about those who need to be in a group setting for social skills support? I could keep going on, but you get the idea. There are so many basic limitations to having a therapist deliver services through a computer. 

Why is Paterson not hiring speech therapists? It's not like there's a shortage in New Jersey. Is the practice by many districts of only hiring though agencies (to save money) getting in the way? Does the cancellation of Paterson's contract with Kid Clan prevent them somehow from entering into a contract with a new agency? Why the drop in appropriated funds for special ed in the 2017-18 school year? 

Paterson Public Schools is a state controlled district, which makes it particularly galling that the state continues to underfund this district. All students suffer when there aren't sufficient funds to properly manage students' needs. In Paterson, the special ed kids must endure another failure to meet those needs.

Our kids deserve so much better than this. 

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:
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. 
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
Family Life Academy Charter School
Ethical Community Charter School
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

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.