Special ed concerns placed before committee

TRENTON – Special education in New Jersey is underfunded, oddly regulated and – according to some – in danger of being dismantled as an effective initiative. That was the testimony provided by some witnesses at today’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools.

Sen. Ron Rice, (D-28), Newark, convened the bipartisan panel to receive testimony from educators about the threats special education faces.

For example, kicking off the hearing was John Burns of the N.J. School Boards Association who said that since 2001, special education’s needs have been increasing while state aid has been decreasing.

Fifty-seven percent of special education costs are borne by taxpayers, he said, while the remainder comes from state and federal aid, but it wasn’t always that way.  State funding once covered half of special education’s costs,  he said.

Complicated eligibility formulae plus the local levy cap have just exacerbated the financial burden, he explained.

He said his association is conducting a study that among other things will examine issues such as more shared services, reducing out-of-district placements, and implementing better training of personnel.

Representatives of the Education Law Center, the N.J. Education Association and other related groups decried the special education changes the administration is trying to enact.

They cited a litany of concerns, including drawing out time frames for evaluations from 30 days to 90 days while shortening the time frame to report to families and disregarding parental notifications until after some waivers have already been granted.

Marie Blistan, a classroom teacher with more than 30 years in special education, and NJEA secretary-treasurer, used words such as “baffled,’’ “frightened,’’ and “dismayed’’ to describe to lawmakers teachers’ and parents’ emotions about the proposed changes.

She told the panel that although there are reports the changes are postponed, she said they can’t get answers about what their fate will be.

Rice addressed that aspect, regarding changes of such sweeping nature being made by administrative code changes.

“I never really liked changes in codes,’’ he said, “because they come and go.  We should go back as legislators and codify,’’ which he said was one of the reasons for the hearing, to collect stakeholders’ input.

Another aspect that frightens parents of special education students is the increased litigious nature of meetings with district officials over a special education student’s program.

Sen. Diane Allen, (R-7), Edgewater Park, said that “We’ve heard more and more that schools bring a lawyer to that meeting. Parents don’t know that’s going to happen.  They can’t afford one, and they shouldn’t have to deal with it.”

Burns acknowledged that the focus needs to be less on possible litigation and more on the student’s educational needs.

Special ed concerns placed before committee