Big education changes coming
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 28, 2005
Revised law will affect special-needs students
Louie Villalobos

Revisions to a federal law will bring sweeping changes to special-education programs across the country beginning in July.

Some parents and teachers are concerned that the change will allow special-education students to be expelled for disciplinary problems, fail classes because their educational needs won't be met, and leave them unprepared for life after graduation.

The law, a reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, specifically will affect the way parents monitor the progress of their child, how schools handle discipline, how students are instructed, how special-needs children in private schools receive services and how state education officials oversee it all.

The scope of the rules is so far-reaching that the Arizona Department of Education has scheduled a statewide teleconference in May with special-education directors across the state and is working to hold informational sessions for the community. Arizona has more than 118,000 special-education students.

Although the provisions become law July 1, states will have to wait several months before the federal government hands down regulations implementing them.

"We're running as fast as we can," said Joanne Phillips, who oversees the exceptional-student services program for the State Department of Education.

The 30-year-old disabilities act was reauthorized by President Bush in December. Because all states accept federal disabilities money, they must adhere to regulations when using those funds. Arizona received $152 million in IDEA grants this year. Nationally, the federal government handed out more than $10.5 billion for special education this school year.

The biggest adjustment for parents of a special-education student is in the development of the child's Individual Education Plan, the document schools and parents create to lay out the educational goals for the student.

In an effort to reduce paperwork, the new provisions will no longer require IEPs to include short-term goals, except for students with severe cognitive disabilities. That means parents won't have a tangible way to measure their child's progress for the year, said Beth Smith, whose 17-year-old son has cerebral palsy.

Parents generally look for the short-terms goals as a way to make sure their child is on track to meet bigger goals for the year. For Smith, that means making sure Michael meets his goal of writing an essay with three supportive arguments if he is to meet his year-end goal of passing English III.

"I can look at the IEP and see if he is where he needs to be," she said.

Phillips said that while districts and parents can choose to continue including short-terms goals in the IEP if they find them helpful, the main goal should be to make sure the plan is aligned with state standards. Paula Banahan, whose daughter has Down syndrome, said parents will demand a way to keep up with their child's progress, even if it's through quarterly updates from teachers.

"How do we get there?" asked Banahan, whose daughter, Julia, is a freshman at Shadow Mountain High School. "Where is our road map?"

How schools and parents work to implement the IEP without the short-term goals will determine if it was worth cutting down the paperwork, Phillips and the parents said.

Another provision likely to be of concern to parents is stricter disciplinary guidelines for special-education students. Previous versions of the disabilities law made it easier for parents to attribute a child's disruptive behavior to the disability. Now it will easier for schools to show a disconnect between the actions of special-needs students and the disability, said Jerri Katzerman, managing attorney for the Arizona Center for Disability Law.

The burden of proof may fall on parents during disciplinary hearings, where schools are generally quicker than parents to label the behavior as separate from the disability, she said.

It's the type of change that Katzerman said parents need to know about when it comes time to question a school's decision. Her organization helps parents with school-related disputes.

"This is a significant reversal of current law," she said. "It will be much easier for an administrator to get rid of a perceived problem."

Banahan said parents will want school employees to be better educated on how each disability affects student behavior, especially if the changes make it easier for students to be removed from "regular" classrooms. Her daughter, for example, tells teachers she is too busy to do homework when she doesn't understand how to do it.

One of the most surprising changes has to do with when schools help special-education students transition into adulthood. Schools will now be asked to begin preparing students for life after school at age 16, two years later than current requirements.

Phillips said that provision was so unexpected that many in the special-education community double-checked to make sure it wasn't a typographical error. Her concern is that special-education students, who need the most help with the transition, will lose two years of services.

"It distresses me," said Phillips, who reminded parents that they can still request transition services begin at 14.

Parents need to plan for life after school as soon as possible to account for everything that child will need, Smith said. Questions about college scholarships, jobs or life services available to special-needs children don't wait until the student is 16, she said.

"I starting asking when Michael was in the 10th grade," she said. "We need to start working on this stuff."

The biggest impact of the provisions will be felt in the budgets of school districts. Special-education teachers will be required to be highly qualified under the law's new provisions. It's a requirement meant to align special education with the federal No Child Left Behind law that already mandates that "regular" classroom teachers be highly qualified.

A more plausible solution, Phillips said, would be to use two teachers in special-education classrooms. A biology teacher, for example, could be asked to spend a period in a special-education teacher's room.

School districts also could be heavily affected by how the law will change special-need services in private schools. Current rules ask the district in which the parent resides to provide services for the child who attends a private school, regardless of where the private school is located.

The change would require the district to pay for the services offered to all special-needs children in private schools within its boundaries. It's still unclear how the funding will work.