Numbers Matter, Particularly When You’re Changing the Rules
Three sets of numbers have been released from the Alabama State Department of Education(ALSDE) about how many and how much it costs when parents of children in special education bring due process complaints against school officials.
The ALSDE has proposed changing the rules for how parents file those complaints, and specifically they propose to cut the time limit for a parent to file that complaint from two years to one year.
The numbers they have used to justify these changes have changed three times. And the numbers can’t be verified because the ALSDE won’t provide the source document.
About 50 people attended the first public hearing about these changes on Wednesday night at Carver High School’s theater in Montgomery. The audience was a mix of parents, special education advocates, attorneys, and educators.
ALSDE Program Coordinator for Special Education Crystal Richardson briefly explained the actual changes.
ALSDE Attorney Michael Meyer then told attendees that the reason the changes are needed is because attorneys are costing school districts too much money. He showed the following slide, no totals included, no numbers of cases, and therefore no way to judge the total amounts being spent by districts.
Meyer said the data came from the Alabama Council of Administrators of Special Education (ALA-CASE), a membership organization for special education administrators and educators organized under the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools.
In an interview earlier in the day, Meyer told the Alabama School Connection that ALA-CASE had conducted this survey and submitted the data to the ALSDE some time ago and that these figures were evidence of what a problem this is for school districts.
Meyer said that these attorney fees in these cases are paid from local money that could otherwise be used to pay for services for students in special education.
That sentiment was echoed by many educators at the meeting who wanted to see “the money” go to serve children.
In that earlier interview, both Meyer and Richardson implied that parent and board attorneys dragged the process out and even filed due process complaints that were unnecessary.
The changes are needed, they said, because the attorneys are standing in the way of parents and educators working things out in a more informal and friendlier way.
Back to the meeting.
After Meyer’s presentation, attendees who had signed up were allowed to step to the podium and make two minutes worth of remarks about the changes.
Having attended many meetings of the Special Education Advisory Panel (SEAP), and having heard that parents are very upset about these changes, I expected angry parents.
And yes, many were angry.
Parents claimed the ALSDE was taking away their right to advocate for their child. That cutting the time limit in half would cause more complaints to be filed and likely more parents would need attorneys.
Some parents cried, telling stories of how they had worked with educators for years, day in and day out, and found no other choice but to file a complaint.
Parent attorneys who drove down from Birmingham took the mic, saying they didn’t believe attorneys were the problem. Attorneys said they were providing a way for parents to get their complaints resolved and get needed services for children. They said attorneys only got involved after parents had tried for a long time to resolve their concerns with school officials and communication had broken down.
Educators and administrators stepped to the mic, telling attendees that special education employees really want the best for their children, and they want everyone to stay out of court. They complained of long due process hearings and of adversarial relationships between parents and educators due to attorneys getting involved.
One claimed that once an attorney gets involved, progress slows to a crawl. [Parents have told me that is something that school officials tell them if they state they may hire an attorney.]
One parent said the ALSDE was looking in the wrong direction trying to identify the problem, “Are attorneys’ fees to blame for 2% of our 8th graders being proficient in math?” He implored the ALSDE to get to the root of the problem, and said the problem wasn’t attorneys’ fees.
Parents and attorneys said educators need more training, and educators said parents need more patience.
And the most disturbing thing about the meeting?
When teachers or educators spoke, folks clapped for “Team Educator”.
When parents, special education advocates, and attorneys spoke, “Team Parents” clapped loudly.
ALSDE Communications Director Michael Sibley was charged with handling the crowd, while Richardson and Meyer kept their seats and didn’t answer questions.
People at the mic were simply speaking to people in the audience.
It could not have been a more adversarial meeting. And believe me, I’ve been in some adversarial meetings.
Two more meetings will be held in the coming weeks.
Let’s stop and look at the numbers for a minute. Since the numbers are what ALSDE officials claim are the evidence these changes are necessary.
According to official documents filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), there were 141 due process complaints filed in Federal Fiscal Year 2012 (July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2013). Five of those complaints actually went to the hearing stage. Others were resolved through mediation, settlement, or other resolution process.
During Federal Fiscal Year 2013 (July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014), 184 due process complaints were filed. Six of those went to the hearing stage. Others were resolved through other methods or withdrawn.
Of the 744,000-plus children in Alabama’s public schools during the 2013-2014 school year, approximately 11%, or 82,400, were identified with disabilities and were being served in Alabama’s 1500-plus schools. [Here’s a breakdown by district.]
That means about 2/10ths of 1% of all of Alabama’s children in special education filed due process complaints. [That multiplier is .002.]
Yet the reason for the changes is because of all of the disruption caused by due process complaints, according to the ALSDE. And because of those attorneys’ fees.
Now let’s look at the numbers provided to the media by the ALSDE.
On Wednesday, a Birmingham television reporter filed a preview of the meeting in Montgomery. She quoted numbers provided by the ALSDE. Here’s the story, and the numbers are in the red box:
Here’s a closer look at just the numbers:
If these numbers were correct, that 333 due process cases were handled at $124,000 each, that would mean $42 million was spent on due process cases in Alabama during the 2012-2013 school year.
Those numbers certainly didn’t match with numbers I believed were true, so I asked both the reporter and the ALSDE to verify the accuracy of the numbers.
Don’t forget: these numbers were produced by ALA-CASE, not the ALSDE.
The following day, this updated story appeared:
Here’s a closer look at the updated numbers:
What a difference a day makes.
The total went from $42 million to $190,000. And the numbers were still stated to represent the 2012-2013 school year.
On Thursday, I asked to see the ALA-CASE survey in order to verify the numbers, totally unsure which set of numbers was accurate.
I questioned the “333” cases, as federal reports showed only 141 for FFY2012, and only totaled 325 if you added in the FFY2013 numbers (which the report on the web site didn’t say were included).
I asked where the $190,000 total came from, as that number had not been provided at the meeting on Wednesday nor during the interview earlier that day.
On Friday afternoon, ALSDE Program Coordinator for Special Education Richardson said that instead of the ALSDE providing the survey for verification, I would have to get the survey directly from ALA-CASE.
At that time, I did two things: (1) submitted an official Alabama Open Records request to the ALSDE for the survey, and (2) wrote to the contact provided for ALA-CASE and asked for a copy of the survey.
A spokesperson for the ALSDE acknowledged my Open Records request. I heard nothing from ALA-CASE.
Late on Friday afternoon, I asked a final time for clarification.
I received this statement, attributed to Richardson and Clark Waggoner, Education Specialist in Dispute Resolution:
ALA-CASE collected this data for the 2012-2013 school year and the 2013-2014 school year through November 14, 2014. This data reflects information that was reported by LEAs to ALA-CASE for 333 DPH requests during the date range of the entire school year of 2012-2013 and the partial school year (through Nov 14) of 2013-2014.
The data reported by ALA-CASE are not for an equivalent time period as the data that are collected and reported by our section to OSEP. The data we report to OSEP is for the reporting years from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013, and July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014 Ms. Crain is comparing data collected by ALA-CASE for a date range that is not equivalent to the date range used by our section for OSEP reports.
The first two sentences completely contradict each other.
The first sentence claims the data was collected from the start of the 2012-2013 school year through November 14, 2014 (which is actually part of the 2014-2015 school year).
The second sentence claims the “333 DPH requests” (DPH stands for Due Process Hearing) were made from the start of the 2012-2013 school year through November 14 of the 2013-2014 school year.
The second half of the response points out the difference in the timing of the school year versus the Federal Fiscal Year. Point taken.
The story that remains online (in the pics above) states the “333 cases” were only from the 2012-2013 school year.
And the slide from the meeting said the data is from the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years (but not any part of the 2014-2015 school year).
I asked the ALSDE for further clarification, pointing out the contradiction. No response.
How did the total cost drop from $42 million to $190,000?
Do the number of cases/complaints represent one school year’s worth of data or two?
Are the number of cases 333 as reported to the news, or 325 as the ALSDE reported to OSEP?
At this point, without seeing the ALA-CASE survey, I question the credibility of all of the numbers.
At this point, if the ALSDE is using these numbers to justify the proposed numbers, I question the need for the proposed changes.
Numbers matter. Particularly when you’re changing the rules for 80,000 of the most vulnerable children in Alabama’s schools.
The weekend is here. No further response has been received about these particular numbers.
The next public hearing will be held on Thursday, October 29 at Saraland High School in Saraland.
The last will be held on Wednesday, November 4 at Cullman High School in Cullman.
More on these meetings soon.