Michigan’s Special Education Proposals Alarm Teachers, Parents

The Michigan Department of Education Office of Special Education has proposed a list of changes concerning how children with special needs are identified and how they are taught. For many teachers and parents, the formation of the 19 page proposal was unexpected and troubling, writes Shawn D. Lewis of Detroit News. A summation of the changes included evaluation in order to be eligible for special needs programs; an outline of the qualified professionals who would determine this eligibility; and making clear that the student who is eligible would maintain the designation of special needs student until graduation from high school with diploma.

Some parents of special ed students said they did not know that the hearing was going to take place. Others said they were not given time to read and understand the proposal.

Lois Lofton-Doniver, secretary and treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers and the union’s education issues coordinator for Michigan, said the changes would affect the power parents have in speaking for their children.

“Michigan has a history of being above the guidelines of the (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act),” she said. “But now it appears that we are going to be at federal guidelines, which are generic because they must address the entire country.”

The proposed changes would establish a new instructor profile, with instructors not needing a master’s in special education and also being categorized as a “teacher consultant.” The TC would also not be required to have the normal requisite three years of classroom experience.

Another change troubling parents and teachers alike is the determination of the number of special needs students assigned to an individual teacher, writes Lori Higgins of Lansing State Journal.

The Michigan Department of Education has said that many parents and teachers are making judgments about the new changes based on erroneous interpretations and mistaken information.  They say that this is Michigan’s effort to conform with federal special education rulings.

One of the hotspots of contention is over the wording of a proposed change that would ask school districts to “review education caseloads and referrals on an annual basis to determine staffing needs.”

The Michigan Alliance for Special Education, co-founded by Marcie Lipsitt, is afraid that the proposal will allow districts in financial trouble to increase the number of students in special learning classes rather then abiding by the current regulations governing the teacher-student ratio. The MDE countered that the intent of the language in the proposal is there only to ensure that annual studies are in place to establish the number of staff members who will be needed for the school year.

Vanessa Keesler, deputy superintendent for education services with the MDE, has also said that as far as parent participation in their children’s education, it will remain an important part of the special needs child’s individual education plan.

“Any time you make a change of this scale in the rules–and these are fairly major changes–you’re going to have confusion,” said Mark McWilliams with Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service.

“The real test is going to be when the rules are in effect and you’ve got the thousands of providers and hundreds of school districts trying to figure out what they’re going to do.”