I’ve seen a lot in Delaware education over the past four years. I’ve seen people say some very brilliant things and I’ve heard very stupid things. I’ve seen the full range of human emotion, from happy to sad, from angry to depressed. But what I heard today made me feel many negative things like never before. How someone could be so blind to reality yet be in such a position of power is beyond my comprehension. Who is this person?
Pat Heffernan, a member of the State Board of Education. Who also happens to be married to State Representative Deb Heffernan. Pat has been on the State Board of Education for a long time. He is serving his 2nd term on the State Board. He tends to interrupt folks and give his opinions without truly thinking beforehand about what he wants to say. The result can be a confusing and jumbled mess spewing out of his mouth. On occasion, I’ve had to transcribe those words from the State Board audio recording.
Last week, the Special Education Strategic Plan was presented to the State Board of Education at their monthly meeting. Presented by Michele Marinucci and Bill Doolittle, the goal was to show the State Board the plan and to gather input from them. It was not the Pat Heffernan show, but that is exactly what it became. It was distasteful and shameless. As you will plainly see in the below transcription of parts of the presentation, Heffernan feels the need to interrupt in the middle of a presentation. He isn’t the only one. Executive Director Donna Johnson does so as well. She isn’t even a member of the State Board so I’m not sure why she is able to say anything other than procedural matters, but at least her tone is respectful. Heff just goes off without a care in the world. It is highly inappropriate. I can’t, for the life of me, understand why he is allowed to go off like a loose cannon whenever he wants. We both share one thing, we are both parents of a child with disabilities. But his attempt at railroading initiatives designed to help those kids is where all comparison between us stops.
Before I get to this, there are two bills before the Delaware General Assembly, both sponsored by State Rep. Kim Williams. One is a bill to grant special education students with the most severe cognitive disabilities a chance to get a modified high school diploma instead of a certificate. The other is a bill to give students with basic special education in Kindergarten to 3rd grade more money in the basic special education category. Pat Heffernan, for reasons I am unable to fathom, is against both those bills. And from what I understand, his wife is as well. I called both of them out for this very transparent conflict of interest during an opt-out rally in front of Legislative Hall two years ago.
The players in the below transcription are Marinucci, Doolittle, Johnson, Heffernan and the brand spanking new State Board member, Wali Rushdan. Rushdan’s nomination for the State Board of Education was approved by the Delaware Senate the day before this meeting. I do want to point out that Rushdan hit a grand slam in my book during this presentation!
Dr. Michele Marinucci: And we also know that one of our goals from the Department of Education is to make sure our students are exiting college and career ready. We want to make sure our students are able to exit college and career ready. And our students that are currently on an application, if you think back to an initial entry-level job application, it asks one of two things. There’s a check box. It asks if they have a high school diploma or it asks if they have a GED. A student that exits with a certificate of performance cannot check the box.
Patrick Heffernan: Why do you think they’re asking that?
Marinucci: I think it’s just a basic question that’s being asked.
Heffernan: But I think they’re asking a question…and if all were doing is changing what these students are already doing, we’re changing what we’re calling a ?, we’re not, we’re just allowing them to sort of lie about what they have. If we were changing what we produced, what a student could do, but when they’re asking you for a diploma, they have something very specific in mind. They’re not asking is the thing you were granted a diploma. If I’m looking for an airbag in my car, I know what an airbag is. If I put a Ziplock bag in the glove department and I have an airbag in my car, right. But if I’m selling my car to someone and I say “It’s got an airbag”, there is an expectation of what that is.
Marinucci: There is no intent to, no intent to fool someone. The point behind it is to allow the person a chance to get in the door for an interview. There is still going to be an interview process. But I’ve seen so many students that have the capability to be a custodian. They’ve been doing it through high school. They have been doing that work. We can’t hire them because they can’t fill out the application to apply.
Wali Rushdan: You’re not talking engineering, you aren’t talking cashier, you’re not talking high cognitive…
Marinucci: No, absolutely not. There are some who could be a cashier at a lower level. Depending on, at McDonalds. Some of the cash registers these days are making it a lot easier for our students. We’re just asking that they be given an opportunity to be eligible to apply… for a position.
Heffernan: I don’t disagree that the students that can do the job should be able to… But like, we’re… Have we talked to Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable and how they think about that? Maybe the law should be changed to call it a diploma, maybe you can’t ask if you have a diploma. That’s really what you’re asking to do. And, you know, all these kids that are working to get a diploma, it’s the same thing.
Bill Doolittle: A big question for a lot of companies is “Did you drop out?”.
Marinucci: So it’s assumed that they dropped out because they can’t check a box. Okay, when you’re 21 and you don’t have a GED or you don’t have a diploma so they’re not even getting an interview because it’s being assumed things? So our smaller sub-group did meet just the other day and had some more conversation around that. And one of the things that came up is Delaware decided to do the ban the box where we’re not asking about someone’s criminal history and the reason for that was we wanted to give the opportunity to walk out of these to get the interview. I feel like we should at least…
Heffernan: But, but, okay, that’s how we change that so we don’t , that’s not one of our decision criteria.
Heffernan: So we just said that we changed what the definition of criminal record is. In Delaware we called it problems with law enforcement and then we said “Do you have a criminal record?”, “No, I do not have a record.” And that’s not. I just… What really, really worries me about this is that Bill #287, as written, House Bill #287, it’s saying that if you meet , if you go through and do your IEP goals, you get this thing, and so there’s a lot of kids that are actually absolutely, the vast majority, what is it, less than 5% of the kids that are in special ed are doing the certificate of…
Marinucci: It’s 1%…
Heffernan: But now you’re opening this up to everybody else. The kid who struggles…
Marinucci: Well if you actually look at the requirements, it’s for students who are on the alternative assessment track. There’s actually a paper that the IEP team has to certify that the child meets these conditions so you couldn’t, unless you met those conditions you wouldn’t qualify, and those conditions are specific to that 1% of the population so it says specifically that they have a mentally, they have mental…
Heffernan: So, but what you’re saying is that now because I’m taking the alt-assessment with this thing I should now be able to check the diploma box so I can apply for a job at McDonalds. But Timmy, who got through Algebra 2 but he couldn’t pass Trig and didn’t get a diploma, he shouldn’t have the same opportunity to not check that box?
Doolittle: Two good points. One is that we could have other solutions if we assumed our kids would never apply for education anywhere or jobs anywhere than Delaware. But we want our kids to be able to be what they choose to be, to be able to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself…
Heffernan: Yeah, but what you’re…. this is a solution for that 1%…
Doolittle: Yes, it is. (inaudible)… the rest of the plan.
Heffernan: There’s nothing about academics in the rest of the plan from what I saw. That’s the biggest single problem with the special ed system… is poor outcomes. There’s nothing in here, and it’s all inputs, and we’re not worried about the outputs according to this plan.
Doolittle: I would disagree but…
Heffernan: If you can show me where in the plan it is talking about increasing that graduation rate, or where decreasing the disproportionality of African-American kids, right? What was this, the last, I’m, sorry…
Marinucci went on with the rest of the presentation for the special education strategic plan. Heffernan didn’t chime in on anything else until it got to the part of K-3 basic special education funding…
Marinucci: So we knew the majority of what we put in this plan couldn’t have a lot of dollars tied to it. Or there was no way it was going to happen at any point soon. We also didn’t limit ourselves, we said if it’s something we know needs to happen, we’re gonna put it in here. Because if we’re not talking about it, if we’re not thinking about it or writing it down, than when the money does pop in, we’re not going to be ready. But we chose to focus once, in the biggest area of fiscal need. The fiscal focus in our plan is on 5.4.2, which is to include the K-3 in the basic unit funding for kids with IEPs. So that is the area that we’re interested in…
Donna Johnson: Just a question. In that recommendation, what is your recommendation to appear putting the K-3 unit at basic level? Does that put K-12 at 20?
Marinucci: Our recommendation is to go along with the bill that Representative Williams submitted.
Johnson: I’m asking because you know we went to (?) unit in 2011 for K-3. So if you want to undo the… (inaudible, Heffernan interrupts…again…)
Heffernan: So you know we did that?
Michele: I do.
Heffernan: So why did we go to the one unit?
Marinucci: Because prior to that we were just identifying based on disability classification and a child with a disability classification doesn’t necessarily have the same needs of all children with that disability classification.
Heffernan: Right, kids were getting classified so schools could get more money. The more kids that were classified the more money they got and we were dinged by the federal government because we had too many kids in restrictive environments. And we improved that, we’re above average instead of way below average now, and while this blended funding might not be the only reason for that, I guess my suggestion would be if we need more money I think we should look at changing the amount of the blended unit, the blended funding. Ask for more blended instead of splitting it off… You know, historically, kids get classified, they get put in the segregated classrooms, they don’t, they’re not exposed to general curriculum as much as the other kids. That’s the problem we were trying to fix. It wasn’t that the… the funding thing wasn’t to cut money, wasn’t to stop funding, it was to… Look, I totally, I’m in support of the group. I think you guys have a good focus on the kids that are getting the least service, that we need to improve the most, that the (inaudible). What I’m concerned about though is that there are unintended consequences coming from that particular focus. And I don’t want to take away any progress we’ve made for these kids that need this extra help. But… there’s just… you know… we’re still…so, so… the last federal report that has a 2015 date, right, so why are white kids identified as special ed at 8.1% and African-Americans at 14.7(%)? Once you’re in that path, there’s a stigma, there’s a… there’s help… I have a child with special ed, but we just, we don’t need to start pushing more kids into special ed so my suggestion would be, if we need more money we ask for more money in the blended formula and try not to backtrack on that thing. Because, the only way you’re going to get more money is by classifying more kids. That’s how you’re going to get more money.
Doolittle: Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of the blended are pretty obvious in Delaware now. First of all, the schools that a wide variation in percentage of kids with disabilities within the K-3, but yet, those schools get the same exact funding so you’re a school that has 15% or you’re a school that has 2%, you get the same funding so how does that school with 15% meet the needs of those kids?
Rushdan: Just to be clear, we’re not talking about resources to expand the pool of children, we’re talking about being able to better provide services to those kids in a manner that is commensurate with their needs?
Doolittle: I’ll put a copy on that. Delaware’s percentage of kids identified in K-3 has been relatively flat over the last ten years while the rest of the nation has taken advantage of the early identification and their numbers have climbed dramatically. So my guess is that is another impact on… if you don’t identify a child, you get no money. I know our educators want to do that best thing, but there are realities out there. There are about 4-5 things this blending has caused. It’s also creating problems with class size. It was an interesting experiment. It was in a time of RTI (response to intervention), it was before the time when the federal government put the ruling out that RTI was not about special education so we just learned through the process it wasn’t the best idea. It’s time to go back and do it equitably like we do with the rest of the grades.
Johnson: To clarify, if a K-3 child is identified with intensive or complex needs, they do have additional funding so we can say that K-3 Basic Special Ed does not receive funding.
Marinucci: I think I can say, working within my district and other districts as well, not in the position I’m in now, what I’ve seen is that when you look at a student, even if the child would be classified as basic special education needs at the K-3 level, they still, I think you’ll understand this really well, they need more than the child that doesn’t have a special education classification does. They need more supports which is why they are identified as having a disability and having an Individualized Education.
Heffernan: So when you, when the blended funding formula came in, it was more than no funding?
Heffernan: Right. That was the point…
Marinucci: The percentage earned for all K-3 students before was lower. I understand that happened but I think what we’re seeing is, and what I can see with the students that we have, is were we able to have a smaller ratio, a better class size ratio of teachers supporting our students with disabilities at an earlier age we would be better able to help them progress and not have them labeled for the rest of their years. I think…
Heffernan: It’s very rare to be able to stop giving kids that label.
Marinucci: We have kids all the time…
Rushdan: Do you have data to support that? It sounds awesome, like the theory, the concept sounds pretty intuitive that the earlier you invest you start to wrap your arm around the issue and you start to see less strain on the system particularly financial cause you’re talking about money now. But a dollar you spend now is saving you $2.00 later on.
Marinucci: There’s a lot of research behind that with earlier intervention on the preschool side and the Birth-5 (age) side. Because we know that by the age of 3rd grade, the better, the more inline that child is on grade level, the gap is not going to grow the same because up until 3rd grade the focus is on learning to read. From 3rd grade on, the focus is on reading to learn. And if they start off as a 3rd grader not having the reading piece, then they’re not getting the same level of the reading piece and the gap will continue to get wider. But there is a huge amount of research…
Heffernan: Don’t mischaracterize what I’m saying. That we don’t want to give enough funding for these kids. I’m just saying the formula for doing it was very intentional to fix a problem. Now there, maybe there are other problems. But we need to look at that. But we, ugh, that was a very intentional change.
Doolittle: I served on the committee that created the needs-based funding system and that was a concern at that time. But we thought we’d try it, see if it worked and it just hasn’t.
Marinucci: I would say that the needs-based funding system that we have in place now has improved things. The gap is (inaudible) model where we (inaudible). If you into any of the elementary school classrooms and you talk to the teachers, you’ll see the frustration because they know that they should be giving more but because of the number of kids that need the supports…
Heffernan: Then the per-student funding needs to go up. Not necessarily targeted money because I pointed at that kid and now I can get that money and take them out of the classroom.
Marinucci: I don’t want to take them out of the room. I’m looking for inclusion. It’s not to take them out of the room. Cause really if you’re talking about taking them out of the room, they’re probably sitting at the intensive or complex at that level. So those aren’t the kids I’m talking about. I’m talking about being able to have kids in the inclusion setting as much as we can and providing the supports they need.
Johnson: Michele, can I say just one thing? You mentioned that getting smaller class sizes and I think I want to go back to one of the things that you spent a lot of time talking about in Goal 2. It was strengthening your teacher workforce. And I think, far too often, we spend a lot of time talking about the size of classes with adding an and to that. And that very important and is the quality of the educator. So I think it’s really critical when we have that conversation it’s not just the class size it’s the quality of the educator.
Marinucci: Absolutely. You can have the quality… (inaudible, both Johnson and Marinucci were talking at the same time).
Rushdan: It’s very important too, especially in special education.
Marinucci: Which is why, really, all of this fits together. One piece by itself isn’t going to do much. But all of this as a collective plan will make a significant impact.
Marinucci finishes the rest of the presentation. After, Doolittle highlights the team’s mission to improve special education for students with disabilities in Delaware. Heffernan gives a suggestion:
Heffernan: I would suggest you include student outcomes in the plan. Again, I really didn’t see that in there. And if you’re talking about measuring something, we want to improve the graduation rates, we want to improve the proficiency rates, right,
Doolittle: There is a vast array…
Heffernan: Right, right, sure.
Johnson: I think what Mr. Heffernan is talking about, there’s one part that mentions the ESSA plan and monitoring and maybe calling out some of those achievement gaps, goals, and not just graduation rates but also proficiency rates and setting some goals in achieving. I know that was one of the things we got in public comment was some concern around those existing gaps in the long-term goals section.
Heffernan: I know to some extent there is pushback because some of, this is not for your entire population, you’re talking about functional goals and things like that. And I, at least I’m interpreting, that you want to make sure those voices are captured and we don’t dismiss them. I just don’t want, it’s the whole picture. We talked about, first, how much difference they had and we want to make sure we’re watching for all of them.
Marinucci: Within the plan, what you’re looking at is the more high-level version. This, although this isn’t filled in, this is where the actual metrics and measurement, it would have been in the plan if we dug deep into those pieces, but on the 1.1.2, where we’re talking about going into the alignment of the ESSA plan, that’s where you would see where that measures down.
The presentation ended when State Board President Dr. Dennis Loftus thanked Marinucci and Doolittle for their time and effort in bringing together multiple constituents for improving special education in Delaware.
If I hadn’t heard State Rep. Earl Jaques hammer Marinucci about getting “permission” from the Delaware Chamber of Commerce over House Bill #287 just a week before this meeting, I would have placed Heffernan’s comments about the same thing in a silo. But there is definitely some collusion going on between the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and certain legislators in opposition to this 1% of special education students getting an actual high school diploma. It is nasty and should offend ANY citizen in this state. We talk all the time about equal opportunity, but when it is time to put the pedal to the metal, we get this kind of backwards discrimination. And how Heffernan (either one) could not get behind K-3 Basic Special Education funding is a nonsensical type of sin. I respect their positions and titles, but I do not respect their opinions one bit when it comes to doing what is best for students with disabilities. From one father to another Pat Heffernan, your words are ultimately what is impeding progress for our children. Shame on you!
This was by far the most painful transcription I’ve ever done of any education meeting in the State of Delaware. If I took a shot for every time Pat Heffernan interrupted or hemmed and hawed trying to figure out what to say, I would be in detox at this moment. I don’t see this happen at other education meetings. And I’ve been to many different kinds, from district board meetings to legislative meetings, from community forums to rallies. If everyone interrupted and chimed in as much as Heffernan does at State Board of Education meetings, nothing would get accomplished. Someone needs to reign him in. If he has concerns, that is fine. But give the presenters of a presentation the courtesy of getting through what they have been invited to say before you shoot off your mouth! If you can’t hold it in, I really don’t think you should be a member of the State Board of Education. And as for Mrs. Heffernan, I question your ability to vote on education legislation and serve on the House Education Committee when your husband serves on the State Board of Education. The conflict of interest is there in and of itself, but the similarity in which you both portray so many of the same views in education are astonishing to hear. Paging Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf!
To hear the entire audio recording of the Strategic Plan, please go to the below link and begin listening at the 34:26 mark. Or if you want to hear the Delaware Teacher of the Year presentation from Virginia Forucci, you can listen to the whole thing!
If anyone listening to the audio link and notices mistakes in my transcription, please let me know. I listen to the whole thing once and then go back and transcribe. There are many instances where I have to listen to parts over and over again in an effort to get it right. I may make mistakes so please let me know and I will fix it in the article. What the transcription does not provide is tone.