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Unless you've been living under a rock, you know the US Department of Education (USDOE) rescinded 72 Dear Colleague and other letters of explanation to state education agencies regarding special education.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When the department released the original list of rescinded letters, there was no explanation for their deletion.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The majority of letters that I could find (not all were listed with a link) were, in fact, outdated.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 of 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in January 2017 with a lot of language about "inclusion" before they got to what is essentially a re-hash of the rescinded 2012 letter about what LRE actually means.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. 

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