Articles in the Special Education category

Vouchers for spec ed students? Think twice

BoardBuzz read with suspicion the claim of a new Manhattan Institute report that private school vouchers can “slow the unnecessary growth” in special education.  The report concluded that vouchers deter the financial incentive for public schools to over-identify students with specific learning disabilities since an SLD diagnosis would make the student eligible for vouchers.

This conclusion over-simplified the many complex factors involving a diagnosis such as the characteristics of the student, the services and interventions needed, etc.  Just because a public school saw a reduction in the percentage of diagnoses, one cannot automatically attribute the reason to the presence of private schools.  In fact, the 2004 reauthorization of the federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) requires schools to use early interventions prior to identification of a disability. This practice helps schools more accurately identify students who need special education services, therefore reducing potential identification.

The more important question here is whether these voucher students receive appropriate services and education after they leave the public school. Has their performance improved? Did they exit special education because they no longer need it? How are the voucher schools being held accountable? However, there are no answers to any of these questions because the information is not available to make an assessment.

The Manhattan report used Florida’s McKay program (which provides vouchers to students with disabilities) to gauge the changes in the percentage of students diagnosed with a disability in public schools. However, BoardBuzz wonders what good is the program if it doesn’t improve student outcomes but simply reduces the number of students diagnosed? Despite its popularity, the McKay program has not been proven effective, see the research here, and has not held participating private schools accountable for student outcomes.  In fact, when parents take their children out of the public school to attend a voucher school, they  give up a multitude of rights afforded under the IDEA. There are no requirements for participating private schools to report any information on student outcomes or follow any due process procedures.  As much as the No Child Left Behind Act has sparked new attention to raising the academic achievement of students with disabilities, vouchers are taking this accountability movement a giant step backward.

For more information on why vouchers are a bad policy, see NSBA‘s Voucher Strategy Center.

Katherine Shek|August 20th, 2009|Categories: Educational Legislation, Governance, NSBA Opinions and Analysis, Privatization, Special Education|

School law week with the Supremes

The U.S. Supreme Court often hands down a flurry of rulings toward the end of its term, and this year is no exception. What set last week apart, for those of us in the education world, was that we got three school law rulings. So here we go:

The special ed case

First, the Court gave us a long-awaited answer to the question of whether parents of a student who never has received special education services in public school can place their child in private school and get public reimbursement. With Justice Anthony Kennedy recusing himself in earlier cases on this question, the Court hadn’t been able to rule definitively.

But last week in Forest Grove v. T.A., the Court ruled that Oregon parents who’d initially agreed with their school district that their son was not eligible for special education services but later pulled him out, without notifying the district, and put him in a residential school, could sue to get reimbursed for the tuition—over $5,000 a month. The details of the ruling, the dissenting opinion, the background on the case, and NSBA’s friend-of-the-court brief all are available starting here, courtesy of NSBA’s Legal Clips.

The big question on everyone’s mind is what kind of fallout we can expect: Will parents who’d like a taxpayer-paid private school education for their children be less inclined to try to work in good faith with their public schools? NSBA General Counsel Francisco Negron tells NPR that this is the scenario that worries schools, and it surely isn’t what Congress had in mind. In the Los Angeles Times, NSBA Deputy General Counsel Naomi Gittins expresses hope that the impact will be limited, since “Most parents do try to work with the school district.” Charles P. Conroy, executive director of a Massachusetts private school, offers reassurance in a Boston Globe op-ed. In this entry on his Education Front blog, Dallas Morning News columnist William McKenzie agrees with the decision but worries that it “could cost districts a boatload of money.” Wall Street Journal columnist and blogger Sue Shellenbarger has mixed feelings.

The media flurry case

The case that got the most intense media interest was, naturally, the Arizona strip search case, Safford Unified Sch. Dist. #1 v. Redding, which BoardBuzz wrote about here. Here, again, the Court ruled that the search of a thirteen-year-old girl suspected of concealing pills went too far, given the limited danger from prescription Ibuprofen and the lack of any reason to think she was hiding the pills in her underwear. Luckily, though, the Court agreed that on a question like this, where even the judges themselves disagree so much, the law isn’t so clear cut that the educators should be personally liable if they made the wrong call. Again, Legal Clips has all the details and background starting here.

The implications? Well, for starters, Gittins tells McClatchy, school officials ”will think long and hard before they authorize a strip search in the future.” That’s probably not a bad thing. But on NPR Negron warns that, as we said last week, the decision also casts uncertainty on searches for other kinds of dangerous contraband, like weapons. And even when it comes to what may seem like more minor threats, he reminds CNN, “The home medicine cabinet now poses a serious threat to students, who may take those medications for abusive purposes.” Watch for future litigation over how “dangerous” something is, he predicts.

The sleeper case

The third case was more obscure and very complex, but it was a biggie in a nation where public schools are tackling the enormous educational challenges of an incredibly diverse student population, and have limited resources ot get the job done. Horne v. Flores was an appeal of lower court rulings that the state of Arizona violated the federal Equal Educational Opportunity Act (EEOA) by failing to fund English language learner programs adequately. The state never complied with the lower court’s order to come up with some rational connection between the needs and the funding provided, but some state officials argued the situation had changed so much since then that the state shouldn’t have to. 

The Supreme Court ruled that the lower courts must consider more carefully certain subsequent changes in the educational situation which may mean Arizona no longer is violating the EEOA and should be relieved from complying with the orders on funding. Details from Legal Clips on the case, including Justice Stephen Breyer’s blistering dissent, start here. The Arizona Republic reports on reactions to the ruling here.

One thing that had education and civil rights advocates worried was an argument that the state’s progress with ELL students under No Child Left Behind automatically meant that the state also was complying with the EEOA. An “enormous can of worms” was how NSBA Senior Staff Attorney Tom Hutton described that argument in the journal Diverse: Issues in Higher Education when the case was argued: “How would this play out in the special education context? I have a hard time believing the court would go there.”

And in the end it didn’t go there—not quite, anyway. While the Court rejected the idea that NCLB compliance = EEOA compliance by definition, it did say NCLB was relevant to the question of whether overall circumstances have changed sufficiently that Arizona no longer is violating the EEOA. That’s the question the lower court will have to reevaluate now. The Associated Press reports that the lawyer representing the plaintiffs welcomes the opportunity.

The Supremes to school officials

After such a busy week shaping school law, perhaps it’s fitting that a speech Chief Justice John Roberts gave over the weekend generated a message for school officials. The Associated Press reports that the Chief Justice said they shouldn’t “look to the Supreme Court to set school rules, only to clarify them when officials have abdicated that responsibility.”

Roberts called the Court’s rulings “clarity intended to deal with narrow issues that surface from government actions,” adding, “You can’t expect to get a whole list of regulations from the Supreme Court. That would be bad. We wouldn’t do a good job at it.”

True enough. But the downside of narrow guidance probably is more lawsuits, as everyone learns how to apply these rulings.

Tom Hutton|June 30th, 2009|Categories: Educational Finance, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Governance, NSBA Opinions and Analysis, School Law, School Security, Special Education|Tags: |

Snapshot or portfolio?

In education circles, it is common knowledge that the pendulum is always swinging.  What was popular ten years ago is passé, but what was popular 20 years ago may be on its way back into fashion.  In the current “accountability age,” states and the federal government have dictated that snapshot testing, where one test on one day determine mastery of a subject, is the most effective way to measure a student’s knowledge (and in many cases, a teacher’s effectiveness).  Virginia is swinging the pendulum back a ways, and looking at grading portfolios for some students.

Today’s Washington Post has a story about Virginia teachers taking over the Dulles Expo Center (other recent  uses include The Big Flea (market), Home and Garden Expo, and Super Pet Expo) where they gathered to grade more than 30,000 student portfolios for students with disabilities or beginning English skills.  Envision the largest big-box store you’ve ever seen, line it up with tables and chairs, and fill it with coffee-cup-carrying teachers ready to assess their [behinds] off.  The benefits of portfolios are still being argued.  Many teachers and administrators like the fact that students are looked at over the course of the year, and information can be inserted into the portfolio in November and again in March, to show progress, rather than the snapshot approach of a high stakes test.  But the pass rate is often much higher in portfolios, making skeptics wonder if it’s an accurate assessment.  According the the Post, students with portfolio grading passed 94 percent of the time in reading, while the traditional “bubble” method passed just 79 percent of the time in Fairfax County. 

The debate will likely roll on.  For school board members, it gives a district more local control, but it also adds hours and hours of prep time for teachers and school staff, which translates into more money being spent on the overhead costs of portfolio-style testing.  To do this statewide, especially in large and urban districts, would take a massive amount of time and energy.  But if it’s a more accurate assessment and demonstrates what a student is accomplishing over a period of an entire school year instead of just one day in May or June, is it worth it?

Kevin Scott|June 9th, 2009|Categories: Curriculum, NSBA Opinions and Analysis, Special Education, Student Achievement, Teachers|

Juicing for grades?

A new government funded report shows that students with ADHD who are on medication perform better on standardized tests than students who aren’t taking anything to treat the issue. According to one of the researchers:

“Our study found that the children with ADHD who used the medication were several months ahead of their nonmedicated peers in reading and math, which is significant because early progress in school is critical to ongoing academic success,” Scheffler said.

Scheffler said children with ADHD who are left untreated do poorly in school, with higher dropout rates and more substance abuse, arrests and social isolation.  “They’re labeled as bad kids,” he said in a telephone interview. “Drugs are part of the answer. But we need parent involvement, understanding what this is and how to work with the kid. We need the school to be involved. We also think that special services like tutoring need to be made available.”

The Reuters article also points out that boys are more likely to be labeled as ADHD than girls.  There has been a lot of debate over drugs and students for a long time.  Many think that we over-drug students, while if you ask many teachers, they might say more students are eligible for testing.  ADHD does not qualify a student for special education assistance, oftentimes they are listed as “other health impairment” and get very limited services from the school they attend.  These medications may help, but there are questions over the long term effects.  One thing BoardBuzz certainly agrees with from the article-it takes more than the school system to help students struggling with ADD and ADHD.  Parents, students, and schools need to work harmoniously to help the students who need assistance.

Kevin Scott|April 27th, 2009|Categories: Governance, NSBA Opinions and Analysis, Special Education, Student Achievement, Wellness|

A new approach to addressing autism

BoardBuzz knows the challenge both school districts and families face in finding the best and most effective way to provide autistic children with an excellent education of the same quality as their peers without the disease, and of the personal challenges autism causes with understanding the learning and social processes that make up the school day.

Too often, children with autism are isolated or not included by other classmates because other children don’t understand why they are acting differently. BoardBuzz was pleased to find an article in the St. Louis Post Disptach that reports on how one mother is educating others about autism to make a difference in her own child’s school experience.

JoEllen Kessler from Troy, Missouri stood in front of her son, Ryan’s, elementary classroom to educate other students on understanding Ryan’s behavior. While, JoEllen doesn’t have the answers to autism, she does have answers to the questions other students may ask about Ryan.

She began by telling them that they may have noticed Ryan acting differently than his classmates and that sometimes he may have problems talking or making friends. As a mother and advocate, JoEllen wanted the chance to explain Ryan’s social skills so other children could understand and have the opportunity to ask questions, with the hope then they won’t focus on why Ryan is different.

Using another student as an example, Kessler tickled the boy’s neck and had students the other students make soft buzzing noises. Then, she asked him to solve a math problem, but the boy was unable to respond. This example allowed students to see how autism affects Ryan; every day Ryan feels his senses stronger than most other people.

BoardBuzz thought the active role this mother took to educate on autism and build a support group for Ryan among his classmates was a step in the right direction for making school days for children with autism better, and it seems JoEllen has already been successful. School officials have encouraged Kessler and invited her to do more presentations, and as for Ryan, playing should be a bit more fun, as one student told JoEllen,” I’ll ask him to play everyday.”

Erin Walsh|November 20th, 2008|Categories: NSBA Opinions and Analysis, Special Education|

Special education: Experts to forecast what’s coming

Ever wish you had a crystal ball to see what new special education controversy might be headed to a school or a court near you? We’ve got a great alternative for you. Don’t miss next week’s audio conference on “Special Education: What’s On the Horizon?” Join in the discussion Wednesday, April 16, at 1:00 Eastern. Click here for the registration info. This one is a joint production of the NSBA Council of School Attorneys (COSA) and the Education Law Association (ELA) and features a diverse panel of frequent and nationally known presenters and authors: Christopher Borreca of Bracewell & Giuliani in Houston, Tyson Bennett of Reese & Carney in Annapolis, Allan Osborne, Principal of Snug Harbor Community School in Quincy, Mass., and Julie Mead of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

COSA members, ELA members, state school boards associations, and NSBA National Affiliate districts get discounted rates, and best of all, it’s a flat fee per phoneline, so you can gather your whole team around a speaker phone and follow the slideshow together.

Erin Walsh|April 8th, 2008|Categories: NSBA Opinions and Analysis, Special Education|

Bellyaching, blogs and BoardBuzz

SpecialEdLaw Blog is all (dare we say?) abuzz about yesterday’s Supreme Court indecision, er, decision, in a special education case, and even more abuzz about our posting yesterday. SpecialEdLaw Blog (SELBlog) predicts BoardBuzz’s “already loud” “bellyaching” is sure to grow even louder. Hmmmm. We beg to differ. Maybe “buzzing” would be a better word.

SELBlog disputes BoardBuzz’s rationale, claiming our view of Congressional intent is not quite as clear as it should be because lower court judges (applying 2nd circuit precedent by the way; meaning: how else could they rule?) saw the law differently. Just because courts disagree doesn’t mean the law isn’t clear. That’s certainly the case in appellate courts and courts of limited jurisdiction like the Supreme Court. And, when it comes to doing the math, BoardBuzz thinks what really matters is how 5 of 9 vote instead of how many votes were had on the bus, in the hallway, on live dancing shows, or on the way to the courthouse steps in Washington.

And, while we’re talking about what really counts, it is this: the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act is about collaboration NOT unilateralism. If that were the case, the Supremes would not have ruled repeatedly that Congress intended for parents to work with school districts to achieve appropriate educational results for students. SELBlog says that “most parents do not opt out and unilaterally place, until that they have first opted in.”

We agree. Most parents of students with special needs are happy with the services their public schools offer their children. But that’s not the point. Those parents who unilaterally choose private placement when they have never given the public school a chance to work with their kids were never interested in being part of public system to begin with (as Justice Scalia suggested). Well, except to collect public money for private schooling.

And, ahem, here’s a bit of math for ya: the average cost of a student in special education is $33,000 a year in New York City. So, yes, SELBlog, it’s not likely a big district like NYC will close its doors any time soon, but don’t forget there are many, many small and mid–sized school districts across the 2nd Circuit (many of them single-school districts) that could face serious budget challenges from even one unilateral placement ala Tom F.

So, it ain’t bellyaching. It’s truth. And, that means with the feds providing only 17 percent of the 40 percent of funding they promised for their share of special education, the burden falls to the local taxpayer.

This is not about the “weak party” nor about playing on “the school’s home turf” as SELBlog suggests. It’s about doing what’s right for students. All students. And, the sad reality is that placing greater financial demands on schools without commensurate federal funding hurts all students.

BoardBuzz knows parents like Tom F. may be well-intentioned. But, striking out on their own out of a misguided belief that private is better (especially without having given the public schools a chance) can have a serious impact on the ability of public schools to educate all children. So, to take a phrase for the horse’s, er, SELBlog’s mouth, “Let’s keep this whole thing in some perspective.”

And, while we’re at it, SELBlog, our legal analysis is just fine, thank you. You may disagree with it. But, if disagreement were the standard for determining unprofessionalism, well, what would you be saying about the Supreme Court given its decisions in special education cases beginning with Rowley? So, make your point. And play nice. Or guess who’s the real bellyacher?

Erin Walsh|October 11th, 2007|Categories: NSBA Opinions and Analysis, School Boards, School Law, Special Education, Student Achievement|

Supreme Court math doesn’t add up

Attention! We interrupt our previously scheduled hiatus to bring you breaking news.

The U.S. Supreme Court has just issued a 4-4 ruling in a special education case that has the potential for serious financial consequences on school board budgets.

Speaking of numbers, BoardBuzz has a math problem for its loyal readers: What is four minus four minus one? In math terms: (4- 4) -1 = X. BoardBuzz’s quick readers have undoubtedly concluded X = -1. And, in the world of Supreme Court math, a -1 justice can have dire consequences.

In the case of NYC vs. Tom F., minus one justice (Anthony Kennedy recused himself) means the appellate court’s decision stands to award the parent of a special education student tuition fees for placing his child in a private school. And, that kind of math will have a serious implications for school district budgets in the 2nd federal circuit, where parents now can avoid collaborating with their school districts as required by the Individual with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) AND still collect public dollars for private schooling.

Say what?

Yep, you heard it. The Supreme Court’s ruling lets stand a decision by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals that found the NYC School Board had to reimburse a parent who placed his special education child in private schools without ever enrolling his child in public schools. When the public school district found that its schools could provide the free appropriate public education required by the IDEA, the parent challenged the school district in court because he wanted to retain his child in the private school. Of course, the private education comes with a hefty tag.

Hello? When Congress revamped the IDEA in 1997, they specifically said that before parents were entitled to reimbursement for placing their children in private schools, they needed to first enroll the children in public schools. In other words, because a private school education has the potential for breaking the proverbial school district bank, Congress felt the public schools should have first dibs at providing the free appropriate public education required by law. If the public school could not provide the appropriate educational services, or if it was proven the education was not appropriate after the district had tried, then and only then was the district responsible for paying for private tuition.

But, the Court apparently could not decide on what Congress meant when it gave school districts “first dibs.” Were that BoardBuzz had a seat on the Court rather than in the gallery! After all, BoardBuzz was a baby bee blog once too, and understands the meaning of “first dibs” along with every other first grader.

Congress knew some parents would choose not to send their children to public school. And, that is just fine. But, Congress also knew that public schools should not be footing the bill for those parents that never intended to send their children to the public school, but wanted the taxpayers to pay for their choice of private schooling. So, that’s why Congress, said that public schools should serve children first. Justice Scalia had it right when he commented at oral argument that public schools “should not have to pay the freight for people who would not be coming to public school anyway.”

Dedicated readers of BoardBuzz know we are not one to clamor for legislation. We think, afterall, that the law is clear. But, now that the Court (without Justice Kennedy) cannot tell us what Congress meant, maybe it’s time for Congress to spell it out for the rest of us … and for the Court.

Want more? Read NSBA’s amicus brief. Check out what our legal beagle friends over at the SCOTUSblog are saying. And tune into NBC Nightly News tonight to see NSBA Executive Director Anne Bryant’s take on the decision.

Erin Walsh|October 10th, 2007|Categories: NSBA Opinions and Analysis, School Boards, School Law, Special Education|

New synthesis of research on special education students

A new synthesis of findings from the national assessment studies aimed at improving results for students with disabilities is now available. The report draws a summary of the seven 1997 studies that comprise the national assessment and coincide with the changes made that year to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).

The seven studies, commissioned by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), address: the needs of infants and toddlers; elementary and middle-school aged students with disabilities; youth with disabilities; pre school-aged children with disabilities; costs of special education; personnel needs in special education; and state and local impact of IDEA.

The report concludes that there has been an increased emphasis on academic outcomes for students with disabilities, and that emphasis has been reinforced by NCLB. Conversely, “students who aged through the system prior to these policy changes may have experienced lower expectations and recieved less rigorous academic preparation.”

To read a complete copy of the research synthesis, click here.

Erin Walsh|October 4th, 2006|Categories: NSBA Opinions and Analysis, Special Education|

Older dads a risk factor in kids’ autism?

One phenomenon BoardBuzz has noted before is the strange increase in incidents of autism among America’s children. It’s not clear what’s going on here, although suspicion in some quarters has focused on mercury in immunizations, a notion federal scientists have dismissed.

Now comes an intriguing study, published here in the Archives of General Psychiatry and front page news here in the Washington Post, suggesting a link between the age of many of today’s fathers and the incidence of autism.

Whatever the causes, the costs of doing everything we can to enable each autistic child to reach his or her full potential have been increasing. And year after year Congress fails to make AYP toward its funding promises to families who depend on special education.

So what are our esteemed Representatives and Senators saying this election season? Ask ‘em. For loads of laughs, see how many of the Congressional dodges listed here on pages 7 and 8 you can get your favorite “education candidate” to try out on you. Then call their bluff.

Erin Walsh|September 6th, 2006|Categories: NSBA Opinions and Analysis, Special Education|
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