Special ed parent: ‘We have not had a voice’

Legislation would restore authority to state education board

Marcie Lipsitt
Marcie Lipsitt

The Michigan State Board of Education would regain a large share of authority over special education in the state if a parent activist can convince lawmakers to make the move.

Marcie Lipsitt of Franklin, parent of a son with special needs, is the main force behind legislation recently reported out of the House Education Committee on an 18-1 vote. House Bill 5323 would rescind the part of former Gov. John Engler’s 1996 executive order that moved special education decision-making authority from the board to the state superintendent of instruction.

Lipsitt and others say that an elected body would be more accountable to the public when it comes to decisions about providing special education services.

"We have not had a voice for ‘we the people,’" Lipsitt said. "We have not had a check and balance system."

She and other parents and teachers are particularly opposed to a rule that gives the state superintendent final say over the use of "alternate plans" for special education programming. While the state sets criteria for many aspects of special education — such as class size and teacher caseloads — intermediate school districts are allowed to deviate from those criteria if their alternate plan is approved by the state superintendent. Intermediate districts are required by law to develop plans for serving all special needs children in their geographic area.

A spot check of ISD plans at the districts’ respective Web sites shows that many operate under alternate plans for class size, age range or teacher caseload.

Opponents of alternate plans say that special education rules were developed to protect children by forcing school districts everywhere to adhere to certain standards. But special education administrators say that Michigan's rules are outdated, and that special education should not be a one-size-fits-all system.

Alternate plans give districts the flexibility to provide services more effectively, administrators say. For example, they say, a special education teacher can handle a larger caseload if his or her students spend part of the day in a general education classroom or with other professionals, such as occupational or physical therapists. Some districts request permission to increase class size if they also supply an extra paraprofessional. In other cases, districts ask for permission to expand the age range of special needs children in a single classroom because there are so few students in the class overall.

House Bill 5323 would not eliminate such plans, but would require state board members to approve or deny them rather than the state superintendent, currently Michael Flanagan. Lipsitt said the bill would give parents a chance to argue in a public arena before an elected body.

"This brings back the decision making to where it can be done in the open … in the light of day," Rep. Chuck Moss, R-Birmingham, said. He noted the bipartisan nature of work on the bill, which has 59 House cosponsors.

But Kevin Magin, acting superintendent of the Wayne Regional Educational Services Agency, said that when the board had authority over the plans, "It took months to get something done. ... It was a major process to make a minor change."

In contrast, the current procedure has streamlined the process, Magin said.

Lipsitt and others contend that that process does not give them enough input.

State rules require that intermediate districts who want to modify their service plan must notify each conventional public school district and public school academy in their area, as well as the ISD’s own parent advisory committee, a group of parents appointed to represent the special education community. Each of those groups is required to sign a document indicating their participation and each group also is allowed to file a formal objection. But individual parents and teachers do not have to be notified in advance about proposed changes in the plan, Lipsitt said, and an individual parent is not allowed to file a formal objection.

One parent told the House Education Committee that she "only found out by chance" about proposed changes in her district’s service plan.

Another parent, Carolyn Gammicchia, a Macomb County parent of a child with special needs, told Michigan Education Report in a telephone interview that, "I don’t think the majority of parents realize what is transpiring. They’re just trying to make it through each day with a challenging child.

"A lot of parents feel if the power was reverted, there would be more transparency. There would be more people looking at it (the plans)," she said.

Neither the Michigan Department of Education nor the state board has adopted a position on the bill, according to the department’s legislative liaison, Lisa Hansknecht.

State board members had mixed views on the bill when interviewed by Michigan Education Report for a related article earlier this year ("Parents push for changes in special ed waiver system"). Board president Kathleen Straus and member Elizabeth Bauer said at the time that they preferred board authority over such decisions, while vice president John Austin said the board should set policy and see to it that the superintendent carries it out.

The Michigan Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and the Macomb Intermediate School District support the bill, committee members were told. Wayne RESA, Oakland Schools and the Michigan Small & Rural Schools Association oppose it.

‘It’s an unnecessary law," Don Olendorf, legislative liaison for the Small & Rural Schools Association, told Michigan Education Report in a telephone interview. The current system already provides checks and balances because the state board has the authority to remove the superintendent, he said.

The lone no-vote in the House committee came from Rep. Glen Steil Jr., R-Grand Rapids, who asked if the problem was the process or the results. He warned that parents might not be any happier with state board decisions on special education issues.

"Are we unhappy with the decisions the superintendent has made or are we upset with the process?" he asked.

"My effort … has nothing to do with Superintendent Michael Flanagan," Lipsitt responded, adding that alternate plans have been approved by three successive superintendents since the provision allowing them was promulgated in 2002.

"You’ve got a growing free-for-all across this state," Lipsitt said.

Lipsitt is the parent who contacted the U.S. Department of Education in 2007 to question Michigan’s policy of allowing secondary special education teachers to count as "highly qualified" by passing an elementary-level content exam. The federal department then required Michigan to change the policy, leading to the new requirement that teachers must either pass a secondary-level content exam or prove competence in another way, such as a portfolio showing experience and relevant education.

###

Lorie Shane is the managing editor of the Michigan Education Report, the Mackinac Center’s education policy journal. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that Michigan Education Report is properly cited.