With all of the energy being put into changing special education regulations to further restrict when and how parents can file complaints about their children’s special education in Alabama’s schools, one might think that the rest of special education is going along just fine. Nothing could be further from the truth.
An examination of issues related to special education has revealed a number of areas where the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) is not in compliance with federal regulations related to special education.
An examination of assessment and achievement data for children with special needs reveals enormous gaps and abysmally low levels of achievement. The charts below show the results for two groups: those in special education and those in general education.
The ACT Plan is given in the tenth grade.
Graduation rates jumped 23 percentage points from 2012 to 2013, but dropped by 13 percentage points for the class of 2013-2014.
To get an idea of just how many children receive special education services and just how varied the level of ability and disability are among those children, here’s a statewide look at how many children received special education services in Alabama during the 2014-2015 school year. Only the two largest racial groups are included in the numbers below, but a full breakdown of children in special education in Alabama by district was published here.
All of these numbers have sparked many questions about why so much energy is being put into changing the complaint process when other areas in special education may need to be brought into focus as well.
The Proposed Changes Opened This Can of Worms
In April 2015, the ALSDE announced a myriad of changes to the way complaints about special education would be handled.
Parents and advocates fought back, and the changes were put on hold.
In October 2015, the ALSDE brought out the changes once again. Though there were fewer changes than when initially proposed in April, some of those changes still drew the ire of parents and advocates.
An attorney for the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) told a group attending the first of three public meetings about the changes that attorneys’ fees were the problem. He said it is simply costing too much money to have lawyers represent parents in disputes with school districts over special education.
School officials, many of them special education directors in Alabama’s school districts, told the public that the money being used to pay lawyers could instead be being used for services for children.
The numbers that the ALSDE used to justify their reasoning about attorneys’ fees came from the state association for special education directors, known as ALA-CASE. After a lot of pushing, we finally received a copy of the survey. Many questions arose but representatives from ALA-CASE have been unavailable to answer questions.
The ALSDE attorney who once used the ALA-CASE survey as justification for the proposed changes recently said the ALSDE will conduct their own survey.
Jefferson County Superintendent Dr. Craig Pouncey denounced the “gamesmanship” displayed by attorneys pursuing resolution in disputes between parents and school personnel.
All have argued that the complaint process is a huge problem and that something simply must be done to rein in attorneys on both sides of the table.
Yet the arguments put forth by the ALSDE and special education personnel from Alabama’s schools have no evidence to back them up.
Cutting Access to the Complaint Process
The most egregious of the proposed changes, judging by comments made by parents and advocates at the public meetings, is the proposal to lower the statute of limitations (SOL) or the time limit to when a complaint can be filed. The ALSDE proposed cutting the SOL in half, from two years to one year.
Attorneys representing parents said the change will likely have the opposite effect than the one intended and instead of limiting the number of complaints filed, it will actually increase the number of complaints, rushing parents into contacting attorneys when problems arise between parents and special education personnel.
Believing the ALSDE had conducted an analysis of what cutting the SOL in half would have had on prior complaints filed, I asked Richardson in an October interview what that analysis revealed. Richardson said no analysis had been conducted. The ALSDE had no analysis nor evidence regarding what effect a one-year SOL would have had in prior years.
Of the southeastern states, only Texas and North Carolina have a one-year SOL. All others have a two-year SOL.
So at this point, the argument the ALSDE put forth about attorneys’ fees cannot be justified with real numbers, nor can the ALSDE provide any evidence of what may happen if the SOL is shortened to one year.
And whether or not there is a real problem with the number of complaints being filed depends on your perspective.
The number of complaints filed during the 2013-2014 school year was 184. Of those 184, six moved through the full hearing process. 44 of those complaints were still unresolved at the end of year. The other 134 were resolved through some other method which is unknown because the details aren’t captured in the statistics.
Here’s a look at a history of “due process complaints” in special education in Alabama. The statistic showing the number of complaints per 10,000 children in special education (“Child Count”) is particularly telling. Alabama is still well below the average for the United States, which unlike most times Alabama is below average, is a good thing in this case. The column on the far right in the chart below depicts how many Due Process Hearings (DPH) were fully adjudicated (completed) and how many due process complaints (DPC) were still pending at the end of the measured time period.
A Year-Long Look at Special Education in Alabama
An awful lot of energy is being put into changing the due process complaint process, yet the number of complaints is relatively small compared to the number of students who are struggling in special education in Alabama.
And that is one reason why the Alabama School Connection is going to take a year-long look at special education in Alabama.
There are too many questions, too few answers, and according to the numbers, too little accountability for outcomes for children in special education.
More than 80,000, around 11%, of Alabama’s children are served in special education in our public schools. Because the number of children in any one school in any one grade stayed well below the minimum number required for accountability purposes during the No Child Left Behind Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) years, very few school districts were ever held accountable for the low achievement of the children they served through special education.
With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Alabama is now free to hold (or not hold) district and school officials accountable for the achievement (or lack of achievement) of children with special needs. Civil rights advocates showed serious concern about the federal government letting go of the ability to hold states accountable for the education of historically marginalized groups of children, including children with disabilities.
Things Learned So Far
A series of questions posed to the ALSDE’s General Counsel on December 7 about what the ALSDE is doing to ensure school officials do not repeat mistakes revealed during episodic special education monitoring has gone unanswered to date.
One large central Alabama school district was found to have two monitoring reports (for the same monitoring period) posted on the ALSDE’s web site at different times, with the first monitoring report showing a number of errors made in formulating and implementing the Individual Education Programs (IEPs) of children in special education, and the second report, dated a year and a half later, showing a much smaller number of errors for that same time period. I am awaiting a response as to why two reports were issued for the same monitoring period showing such different results.
Most school districts in Alabama do not track legal fees related to special education. In fact, only 35 of the existing 136 school districts did so during the most recently completed fiscal year ended September 30, 2015. The ALSDE survey of legal fees will likely be a difficult pursuit.
The ALSDE Special Education Services’ State Systemic Improvement Plan (SSIP) outlines the abysmal achievement levels of children with special needs (check out page 7), yet gives no roadmap to improve those results.
The most recent data collection effort filed with the U.S. Department of Education, called the State Performance Report/Annual Performance Report (SPP/APR) shows that not a single one of Alabama’s school districts met the annual proficiency goal for its students in special education (read page 14).
There were nearly 44,000 students with IEPs in grade 3 through 12 included in state assessments (read page 17). The number of those students proficient in reading was 6,853. For math the number was 7,714. So somewhere around 37,000 of those students were not proficient in either reading or math, or both (read pages 20 and 21).
Yet the ALSDE and some special education directors, particularly those affiliated with ALA-CASE are spending enormous amounts of energy on fixing the dispute resolution process, which affected fewer than 200 children last year.
I hope to have a conversation with a representative from ALA-CASE soon about the survey used as the justification for the ALSDE’s proposed changes to unravel the confusing numbers presented in the survey.
A meeting of folks (hand-picked by ALSDE Special Education Director Crystal Richardson) will meet on Thursday in Birmingham to discuss the proposed changes and to consider better ways for parents and special education personnel to collaborate. Only two parents were chosen to attend, along with one disability rights advocate and two attorneys. The remainder of attendees either work for school districts in special education or work at the ALSDE. Further questions about attendees were not answered by Richardson.
A meeting of the Special Education Advisory Panel (SEAP) will be held on January 20 in Montgomery. The SEAP is required by federal law to be comprised mostly of parents of children with special needs or persons with special needs. Alabama’s SEAP does not meet that requirement and has not done so for at least the past five years. Disability advocacy groups in Alabama have been pushing to get Alabama’s SEAP functioning more like other states’ SEAPs for years.
A final set of proposed changes to the complaint process is expected to emerge after the SEAP meeting to be presented to the State Board of Education for their review and approval some time in late spring.
And what will the Alabama School Connection be doing along the way?
Looking into the various contracts entered into by the ALSDE and by school districts for services related to special education.
Reviewing how money is spent for children with special needs and what the sources of those funds are.
Examining what other states are doing to improve the dispute and conflict resolution process between parents and school officials.
Waiting on the results of the ALSDE’s study into how much money is actually being spent on attorneys’ fees related to special education conflicts.
Examining how ALSDE officials propose to comply with ESSA, specifically where children in special education are concerned. At this point, the lowest achievement goals that have been set by state officials are for those students in special education (see page 5 of the PDF).
If you have a concern related to special education that you’d like us to look into, please comment below or write us at asc(at)alabamaschoolconnection.org.
Next up: a look at National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results for children with disabilities. How Alabama’s students with disabilities compare to other states’ students with disabilities across the country.