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State, special ed advocates tussle over proposed changes to IEPs

Special ed advocates objected to the limited choices in this drop-down menu on the proposed IEP form.

Special ed advocates objected to the limited choices in this drop-down menu on the proposed IEP form.

A new push by the state to standardize the way school districts plan which services special needs students should receive is rattling parents across New York.

At the heart of the process is a document called the Individualized Education Plan, which a team of experts crafts to describe the student’s educational needs and how the school should address them.

For years, every school district has used its own IEP form. Now, state officials have created standardized forms to be used by all districts.

The officials say this is an important move because it will create consistency across the state, but special education advocates are worried that the new form could put children’s needs in jeopardy. Everyone agrees that IEP forms are crucial documents because they are the strongest form of insurance a parent can have that his child will get specific services. Advocates worry that the forms the state is pushing would weaken that insurance.

The state started developing the new IEPs in early 2007, when they showed drafts to a select group of parents, educators, and others with an interest in special education. The standardized forms were supposed to be used as early as January 2009, despite advocates’ calls for an open public feedback process first. The United Federation of Teachers applied pressure on the state, and in October, the Regents approved an emergency delay to allow for three public hearings and a final revision of the forms. At the second of these hearings, held yesterday in Manhattan, state officials said they would post the comments they receive on the state’s website in January, and the revised forms will be rolled out at the start of the next school year.

It’s unclear how willing the state will be to make changes. Although representatives of NYSED took notes on the speakers’ concerns and said they’d take what they heard into account when revising the documents, a question-and-answer session at the end suggested that the forms are unlikely to change much.

“We can’t mandate information that’s not mandated,” said Rebecca Cort, Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities. “All we can require is the things that are required.”

What she meant is that if NYSED requires every district to use the new forms, it must limit the questions to information required by state or federal regulations. The state can’t force school districts to gather other kinds of information. Many of the concerns raised at the hearing relate to information that isn’t required to be in the IEP under state regulations.

Cort’s statement didn’t sound right to some special education experts. “If you look at it really broadly, the whole statutory purpose of the IEP form is to facilitate the provision of a free appropriate public education to each child with a disability in New York State. I would think that they can put on the form whatever questions are needed to meet that purpose or goal,” Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates For Children of New York, told me.

Cort assured the audience that many of their concerns will be addressed in the guidance document and training sessions that the state will create to accompany the new forms. And districts can add to the state’s form (but not change it) to include some of the missing information, she said.

But Maggie Moroff, also of Advocates For Children, is concerned that guidance documents tend to be long and technical; the city’s new special education Standard Operating Procedures Manual runs to almost 300 pages. “If it isn’t on the face of the IEP which actually goes into the hands of the parents and educators then it’s hard for the state to make sure the kids are getting what they need,” she said.

Details on the issues raised in the hearing:

  • A drop-down menu gives only two choices for a child’s Behavior Intervention Plan: Time Out Room and Other. “What does ‘other’ mean?” speakers wanted to know, questioning why more positive behavioral interventions hadn’t been specified as options. Since “Other” is vague, the drop-down menu will lead to people defaulting to Time Out Room rather than “the many creative and interesting ways of changing a student’s behavior,” Moroff told me.
  • The IEPs lack information about whether the child is on track to receive an IEP diploma, Regents diploma, or Advanced Regents diploma. Speakers suggested that the document should raw parents’ attention to this question, since the IEP diploma severely limits a student’s options after high school graduation. “How does a school properly plan for a child’s graduation and discuss this with a parent, if you are not sure of where you’re headed?” asked Mary Kemp, who works with learning disabled students in a private school.
  • The section of the IEP document specifying related services, such as speech therapy, does not specify the size of the group the child should be in for these services. With budget cuts looming, speakers said that schools are likely to put all children in the largest groups legally allowed. Currently, IEPs can set a group size for a child that is less than the legal maximum, but this might not happen unless the option is made clear in the new documents.
  • The new IEPs lack a cover sheet tracking attendance at IEP meets and do not include information about the parent’s home language. Several people testifying said that these holes in the new forms could result in parents being shut out of important decisions about their children’s education. They also expressed concern that the new IEP forms do not highlight medical information that alerts educators to a child’s potentially serious health issues. Officials from NYSED countered that they expect most districts will address those concerns by adding a cover sheet to the IEP.