Panel OK’s new special education rules

New rules governing extended year services for special needs children will take effect in Michigan schools this year, over objections by some parents.

The revised rules, proposed by the Michigan Department of Education, were the subject of a lengthy hearing before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules recently. Though some parents spoke against the revisions, education department officials supported them, saying some of the changes are necessary to put Michigan in compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The committee voted unanimously to adopt the package.

Much of the disagreement, both at the JCAR hearing and during public hearings conducted over the past year, has centered on programs for children with severe cognitive or severe multiple disabilities. In the past, children in those programs were automatically guaranteed an extended school year. Federal rules, and Michigan's new rules, now say that decisions on offering extended year services must be made on an individual basis by the child's education planning team.

In addition, the new rules allow programs for children with severe disabilities to be offered on a 200-day schedule, with 1,150 clock hours, rather than the previously required 230 days. Schools also can use an alternative schedule as long as 1,150 hours are provided with no breaks longer than two weeks.

State Sen. Hansen Clarke, D-Detroit, was quoted in the Detroit Free Press as telling parents that if the new rules resulted in students being denied services, "I'd like to hear about that."

The new rules also provide for a "response to intervention" method of diagnosing learning disabilities. 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 said that 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 a safety net.

Michigan's new 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.

Parents also questioned the lack of any mention of private education opportunities for special needs students, according to a report of the hearing published by the Michigan Information and Research Service.

In cases when a child's education planning team decides that the resident public school cannot provide service the child needs, then the child may attend a private school at public expense. Private school options are not specifically mentioned in Michigan's special education rules, though the option is noted in federal regulations. (See "Parents seek private special ed with public funds")

When parents at the hearing raised the issue of private education options, the MIRS report said, a state education department official responded that only two requests for private instruction have been made in the past nine years, attributing that to the availability of services in the public setting.

Special education rules will be revisited in the coming year, as the department plans to again conduct hearings and add more language on extended year services. The Michigan State Board of Education recently adopted standards for those services that school districts can use as a guideline, but putting the language into the state's official rules gives them the weight of law.