READFIELD – As a new governor and Legislature transition into the Blaine House and the State House, I continue to hear rumors about the fate of special education students and programs in Maine.

As rumors go, these seem to have some traction and may have been initiated as trial balloons to test the political waters. Or, they may have begun in the anxieties of parents and other groups who are legitimately worried about funding for services their children are currently receiving through special education.

Either way, it’s a good time to reflect on the concerns of all stakeholders involved, from parents and students to taxpayers and legislators.

What many don’t understand about special education is the extent to which the federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, governs the roles of the states in implementing this entitlement program. The federal law was enacted in 1976 against a backdrop of hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities who were institutionalized and effectively barred from attendance in public schools. I have a healthy respect for this law as it has literally saved lives and enhanced the quality of life for so many kids and their families.

Since its inception, IDEA has been revised several times and the state regulations implementing the law have changed almost annually. There are more than 1,200 pages of federal regulations and more than 240 pages of state rules at play in special education.

Maine has worked hard these past several years trying to minimize the fiscal and administrative burden of our rules and most of our regulations now mimic the minimal federal language. Because of these changes, our statewide eligibility rate has decreased from 16.6 percent of all students to 15.6 percent of all students in the past three years.

There are some notable exceptions where we do exceed federal requirements and these, I’m sure, will be reviewed again. What the new governor and Legislature may not realize is that Maine cannot promulgate regulations that go below the minimal federal standards. The courts would toss out any attempt to do so in a heartbeat. Until and unless Congress and the president decide to change the law, Maine must and will obey it.

What we can do, however, is make smarter decisions about eligibility — who gets in — and appropriate services once a student is determined eligible. These decisions are made tens of thousands of times each year in Individualized Education Plan team meetings.

The team consists of educators, parents, other specialists and an administrator — usually a special education director — and, by federal law, a higher authority cannot overturn their decisions. Neither the superintendent, school board nor governor can rewrite the plan or veto the services.

By training staff very well and often in the complexities of eligibility decisions and service offerings, these IEP teams can make more informed decisions that target appropriate levels of services to those students who are truly disabled.

Special educators are then able to focus on somewhat fewer students, with better results for the kids and less cost to the district. My district in Maranacook has seen its eligibility rate decrease from 22 percent to 13 percent since I began serious staff development efforts here some seven years ago. Our special education costs have also decreased by more than $700,000 in that time. Those students who are not disabled but still need extra help should not be ignored, but we should not be labeling any student as disabled unless we have the evaluations and data to support such a significant decision. 

I truly hope that the new power brokers in Augusta understand the complexities of this law and don’t waste their time and money trying to undermine or diminish it. They simply don’t have much jurisdiction to do so! They can, and should, review those few remaining areas where Maine exceeds federal law and determine through the rulemaking process which ones stay and which should go.

They’d get even more bang for the buck, however, by assuring competent and well-developed statewide training efforts targeted at the administrators of the IEP teams who make tens of millions of dollars worth of irrevocable decisions each year.

 

– Special to The Press Herald