No local autonomy for special education in Michigan

New special education rules make few changes for districts, students

A year-long battle over special education rules ended February 14th when the Michigan State Board of Education endorsed a plan that makes few major changes. The changes would have allowed Michigan schools more flexibility in their programs for children with disabilities.

In March of 2001 the Michigan Department of Education, under the direction of then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Arthur Ellis, proposed rules that would have eliminated state special education mandates on class size, number of students assigned to a teacher, separation of students with severe and minor disabilities, and separation of students by age groups. The new rules would have allowed local teachers and administrators to decide these matters themselves.

The proposed rules were intended to replace an outdated system of regulations that had not changed in 25 years, and give schools freedom to streamline and tailor their programs to the needs of the child. But the independence they would grant to local school districts sparked a reaction from advocacy groups that favor centralized control and uniform mandates on schools.

The critics charged that the rules would allow schools to shortchange their special education students to save money. Parents, special education advocacy groups, and lobbyists held rallies opposing the changes during public comment hearings. One spokeswoman, Deborah Canja Isom, executive director of CAUSE, a state and federally supported education group, told the Detroit Free Press that laws allowing greater autonomy mean less certainty for parents. "There will be litigation 'til the cows come home,'" she said "When you take certainty out of the process, people will turn to the legal system to set the ground rules."

Proponents of the changes countered that strict controls have created an unnecessarily expensive, one-size-fits-all system that does not fit as many individual needs as could be met if teachers and administrators at the local level had greater discretion in teaching children with disabilities.

Ultimately, current state school superintendent Thomas Watkins Jr. rejected the majority of the changes proposed by Ellis.

Had the new rules passed, Michigan public schools still would have had to follow federal rules under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires states to provide free and appropriate education that meets the needs of students with disabilities. Under IDEA, schools must set up Educational Program Teams-composed of an official designated by the school superintendent, plus the parents of the child-for each special-ed student. The Program Team is to determine the course of education that would most effectively allow the student to reach his or her potential.

The federal IDEA requirements were not enough assurance for the Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state's largest school employee labor union, which opposes more local control of special education. "The overall effect of the revised rules will be that local districts will have the responsibility of developing operational guidelines for developing special education services," wrote Tom VanHoven, in the April 2001 issue of the union's monthly publication, The MEA Voice. "We know from past experience that the focus of too many superintendents is fiscal prudence rather than effective instruction," VanHoven wrote.

Others, such as Bob Sornson, executive director of special services for Northville Public Schools, went even further, telling the Detroit Free Press that the special education rule changes were ". . . an attempt to shift funding responsibility away from the state and to the intermediate school districts and local school districts." Sornson was referring to a long-festering debate, involving $1 billion in lawsuits during the past 17 years, over which government entity is supposed to pay for special education programs, the state or local districts. Some districts have sued the state, charging that it was forcing them to conduct programs without funding them.

When the Department of Education first offered the new special education rules one month before Superintendent Ellis was to leave office, it gave the typical six-week notice for public comment as required by law. Opponents obtained a court order restraining the Department from ending debate, claiming the six-week debate period was not long enough to consider the complexities of the proposed rules.

Watkins rejected the idea of allowing intermediate school districts to decide how many students their local district special education programs could handle as well as class sizes for those programs. He said intermediate districts should be able to ask the superintendent of public instruction for permission to determine these matters, but that local districts should not be allowed to have that authority. Also rejected were rules that would have allowed school districts to decide how to group children with disabilities, and rule changes that would have given schools more flexibility in determining the number of instructional days to provide to special education students.

Although Superintendent Watkins said school districts could request waivers from any of these rules, some observers, such as Robert Stoler, a Southfield public school special education teacher, say there are no provisions for hearings should a teacher or parent wish to complain. Stoler told Michigan Education Report the granting of waivers is arbitrary, that there is no policy at the Department of Education for granting special education waivers, and that waivers are sometimes granted over the objection of a student's parents and teachers.

The only substantive change adopted by the Michigan Board of Education was to give Program Teams slightly more discretion in determining a students' disability, permitting more general descriptions rather than imposing strict formulas.

Now that the new rules package has been approved by the state school board, it goes to the Office of Regulatory Reform and the Legislative Service Bureau. Once certified by those agencies, it will be sent to the Michigan Legislature's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, which is responsible for the legislative oversight of administrative rules proposed by state agencies. The joint committee will have 21 days to file a notice of objection. If there are no objections, the rules will take effect seven days after public notices are filed.

"Our state has the most rigid and rule-bound [special education] system in the nation," Michael Williamson, former deputy state superintendent under Arthur Ellis and one of the original proponents of the rule changes, told the Detroit Free Press. "Michigan was once a leader in special education. But it's like when you build a good product and are a leader. Over time, conditions change."

Education officials believe that the new rules will be approved by summer 2002 and that schools will be in compliance in time for the 2003-04 school year.