Florida, New Jersey Parents React to Special Education Changes

Special education is peppering the news this week as NPR's State Impact blog reports on an effort under way in Tallahassee, Florida that would give parents more control over their children's special education plan. Meanwhile in New Jersey, parents of special education students are protesting proposed changes in regulations that govern how special education services are delivered to students that depend on them.

The New Jersey regulations are being revised at the behest of Governor Chris Christie, who has said that the overhaul of special ed rules is one of the priorities of his administration. Among the proposed changes is one that has raised the hackles of parents of kids with special needs; while previously each child was assigned a Case Manager who had to be member of the school district child study team – which is made up of a school psychologist, school social worker and learning consultant – the changes would allow that role to be filled by a special ed teacher or a school counselor.

Parents are complaining that Christie is sacrificing quality of care delivered to students for financial reasons. According to the New Jersey Newsroom, if the proposed changes are adopted, district could achieve some savings because fewer child study team members need to be hired and retained.

Parents also complain that they were excluded from the process of re-designing the State Code and there was a lack of transparency in the process. The Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) has asked the State Board of Education to "slow down the process" in which radical changes have been proposed. The State's proposal would also allow school districts more time to engage in the diagnostic process of determining if the child is eligible for special education and related services. According to the proposed changes, the process could take six months or longer. Given that the school year is only ten months, parents contend that valuable time would be lost in the process, which could be detrimental to a child's development.

The proposal currently in front of the lawmakers in Florida, on the other hand, has been generally welcomed by parents because it gives them the final say over the decisions made about their children's education. Although district officials could still propose that a child be moved from special education to regular track and back, the ultimate say-so would lie with the parents. If school district officials disagree, they will need do go through the courts to impose their decision.

Ann Siegel with the advocacy group Disability Rights Florida says these kids are more capable than people think.

"I think they're kind of forgetting what the special part in special education was," Siegel said, "and that is to provide that specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of the students so the students can achieve to the same extent as their non-disabled peers."

Siegel's group has represented many students who she says were inappropriately moved to a special diploma track.

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