Proposed changes in the rules governing special education in Michigan go before a legislative committee on Wednesday.

The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules will conduct a public hearing at noon in Room 426 in the Capitol Building on a package of rule changes submitted by the Michigan Department of Education. The changes relate mainly to programs for students with severe impairments and identification of children with learning disabilities.

The new rules would continue to require that school districts provide 1,150 hours of instruction each year in programs for students with severe multiple or severe cognitive impairments, but would change the minimum number of days required from 230 to 200.

Alternatively, districts could design a calendar for a different number of days as long as 1,150 hours were provided and there were no breaks in instruction longer than two weeks. Students enrolled in those programs would no longer automatically be eligible for extended-year (summer) services. Under new federal rules, that decision must be made on an individual basis by the student’s individual education program team, a group of teachers and specialists that decides, with the parents, which services a child will receive each year.

The revisions also could change the way in which children with specific learning disabilities are identified. The term "learning disabilities" refers to cognitive disorders that affect a child’s understanding or use of language and consequently, the ability to read, write, spell or compute mathematically. More than 92,000 Michigan students were identified as having a learning disability as of the 2006-2007 school year, by far the largest subgroup in the special education population.

In the past, one way in which students were identified as learning disabled was to determine if there was a "severe discrepancy" between their ability, as determined by testing, and their actual achievement. Students with a large discrepancy were often referred to special education. However, critics called that process a "wait to fail" approach that could delay identifying students who needed help. They also charged that the model often misidentified children as needing special education when the real reason for the achievement lag was poor instruction.

Federal rules then were adopted which said a school district must not be required to use severe discrepancy testing, though it could, and must be allowed to evaluate children based on how they responded to extra academic help. The "response to intervention model" generally involves providing added instruction in a child’s weak areas. Children who do not respond are then considered for special education. Critics of the response to intervention method say it is likely to fail to identify some children and that the "severe discrepancy" model should continue to be used as well.

Michigan’s proposed rules say that the state shall not require a school district to use the "severe discrepancy" process to identify learning disabilities, and that it will permit districts to use a scientific, research-based intervention process, or an alternative research-based procedure.

The state department of education conducted six public hearings on the changes and has received approval from the State Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules. If the JCAR members do not approve of the revisions, they can submit a "notice of objection" to the full Legislature in the form of a bill requesting that the rules be rescinded as of the date they would have taken effect.

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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.