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.