Special Needs Families Deserve Transparency

Posting ISD special education plans enables sound decisions

Great power and funding entail great responsibility. This principle needs broader application to Michigan’s 56 intermediate school districts, which wield big budgets but tend to operate outside the limelight.

ISDs have grown responsible for a steadily larger share of the state’s public school finances, though most are run by boards that aren’t democratically elected. These education agencies combined spent more than $1.6 billion in 2015-16, nearly 10 percent of all K-12 current operating expenditures. Yet these agencies serve less than 1 percent of the state’s public school students directly.

Though there is no cookie-cutter version of an ISD, each one typically provides some level of back-office support to school districts and runs programs for alternative and vocational education. One primary purpose of ISDs is to oversee the design and provision of special education services, according to what individual students may need. Most of the agencies directly serve students with certain types of disabilities. But they may also let local districts deliver certain services to their own students, or to a group of students within the ISD that has a specific special need.

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As a result, ISDs typically produced special education plans that outline who is responsible for diagnosing students, educating them based on their diagnosis and transporting them to the sites where services are delivered. These documents provide a general overview of the available resources that caregivers need to select the correct educational track for children. They are updated periodically as changes occur in the ISDs, but rarely change on a yearly basis.

Each year ISDs collect nearly a billion dollars in local taxes that account for a significant share of Michigan special education funding. The ISD plans spell out the priorities for receiving local funding. Some even limit local dollars to financing services for students who live within ISD boundaries.

To help understand the diverse functions and intricacies, we set out to obtain copies of all 56 ISD special education plans. Many of the searches were unfruitful. Some ISDs post these plans on their websites for easy access, but nearly half did not post the documents. Instead, we had to turn to the Michigan Department of Education to find the missing plans. When all is completed, gathering these documents will have taken over a month.

Schools exist to educate children and give them the tools necessary to thrive as future adults. Many children require special education services, and the ISDs should work to make this as simple and transparent as possible. No parent should spend their valuable time digging for information when it can be easily provided. This problem has a simple, easy solution that would improve the planning experience for all involved.

With cheap and available web storage, every ISD should be able to post the current special education plan on its website. The alternative is filing Freedom of Information Act requests, which can take weeks to be filled. Busy parents need immediate access to plan and prepare for the school year.

ISDs should add special education plans to the important financial documents and information they and other districts already have to post online. Parents, teachers and support staff should also be able to easily locate these plans in order to inform important decisions that benefit the children and families involved.

Michigan’s ISDs have a lot of control over the educational opportunities available to students with special needs. Making special education plans easily accessible is a small, commonsense way to give parents more power and show greater openness and trust.

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