Capital Board’s Legislative Priorities Could Be A Lightning Rod Of Controversy For Special Education In Delaware

Tomorrow night, the Capital School District Board of Education will discuss their legislative priorities for Fiscal Year 2017 at their monthly board meeting.  There is a lot in this proposed draft.  Some I agree with, and some I don’t.  But if certain things get pushed by all school districts, we could see a controversial start to the 149th General Assembly in Delaware.  Parents of students with disabilities could be spending a lot of time down at Legislative Hall in Dover.

In terms of burden of proof for who is implementing a special education student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), I believe it should be the school that has the burden of proof.  If a parent challenges a school on these issues, how is a parent going to know what is happening inside the classroom?  It should be the school’s responsibility to address these issues if it gets to the point where a parent files a complaint that leads to a due process hearing.  There is one or two parents and maybe one advocate in an IEP meeting.  The rest is school personnel.  A parent cannot implement an IEP in a school setting.  Only a school can.  This is the law.  But in Schaffer v. Weast, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Burden of Proof should lie with the aggravated party, be it a student or the student’s parents (or legal guardian) or the school district should they dispute an IEP.  While the Supreme Court is the largest court in the land, I don’t agree with their decision in some respects, but I do recognize the authority of the United States Supreme Court.

The final ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005 reads as this:

We hold no more than we must to resolve the case at hand: The burden of proof in an administrative hearing challenging an IEP is properly placed upon the party seeking relief. In this case, that party is Brian, as represented by his parents. But the rule applies with equal effect to school districts: If they seek to challenge an IEP, they will in turn bear the burden of persuasion before an ALJ. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is, therefore, affirmed.

In a sense, any challenge a school district has about an IEP will invariably lead to the burden of persuasion.  I would find it very difficult for a due process hearing to occur where a school district does not disagree with at least one part of a student’s IEP.  And if it does happen, I would assume the parent lost or the Due Process Hearing Officer ruled based on applicable law that neither party got it right in terms of what should be in an IEP.  In any of the steps that could eventually lead up to a Due Process Hearing, districts have to provide sufficient evidence to the parent about what is happening with special education.  Parents do have considerable rights for their child’s special education.  They can request an Independent Educational Evaluation, they can call for a manifestation determination hearing under certain criteria, and they can file an administrative complaint.  Even though I disagree with the finding of the Supreme Court in 2005, it is the law and it is precedent.  Therefore, I have to agree with the Capital Board of Education that Delaware should not have a law on the books that predates a Supreme Court decision (their law is from 1999).

With that being said, Delaware is well-known to have serious lapses or even outright denials of special education services for students with disabilities.  Parents of children with special needs tend to be very passionate about what they want for their children.  Many understand the law (sometimes better than the school districts) very well.  I have always said never walk into an IEP meeting without an advocate and always record the meeting.  What is said in IEP meetings can make or break a case in certain circumstances.  Parents in Delaware should not be afraid to have their attorney subpoena a teacher as a witness.  Senate Bill 33, passed in the Spring of 2015, allows for whistle-blower protection for any school staff in regards to special education.  If there is one consistent thing I’ve heard from parents in Delaware, it is that teachers want to implement IEPs, but administrators have been the ones who stopped something for some reason.  While this isn’t always the case, and sometimes it is both, never be afraid to play a card that could work out to your child’s best educational interest.

The other legislative priority for Capital deals with a Free and Appropriate Public Education.  IDEA federal law states schools must provide children with disabilities a “basic” education without clearly defining what is meant by basic.  Delaware law states schools must go beyond “basic”.  I would argue that in Delaware’s current educational landscape, the push is for all students to go beyond “basic”.  If Capital wants to have AP and honors classes, that goes beyond “basic”.  You can’t sit there and say “all for some”.  If you are going to be a school district that wants ALL students to succeed beyond just “basic”, you can’t pick and choose.  Then Lieutenant Governor Matt Denn said it best at the first IEP Task Force meeting:

Children with disabilities are entitled to a Cadillac education, not a serviceable Chevrolet.

The trick is finding out what that “Cadillac education” is.  I do not agree that this should be based on standards-based IEPs leading to higher proficiency on the state assessment.  We all know students with disabilities fare the worst on these types of tests.  We are failing all students if we continue this very bad charade of student success as measured by high-stakes testing.

In terms of the other legislative priorities in the below document, it is a no-brainer that our state needs to find a better way to fund education.  The funding cuts from 2009 should have been restored a long time ago.

Special Education, Burden of Proof, Parent Opt-Out, Lockdowns & Funding discussed at Capital School District Board Meeting #netde #eduDE

The Capital School District Board meeting last night touched on very recent topics affecting the state of education in not only the Capital School District, but also the state of Delaware.

Following up from a topic introduced last month at their board meeting, the Capital School Board is pushing for legislators in Delaware to look at Burden Of Proof during Due Process Hearings.  Capital’s stance is the burden of proof needs to be on the school’s side more.  One board member, Matthew Lindell, stated he feels this has shifted more towards the parent’s side, but the Delaware DOE appoints due process hearing officers and they are not partial to parents.  Lindell stated he would like to see a balance in the middle.

At the same time, Capital is looking for the state to increase special education funding which was reduced during the recession that began in 2008 and funds were never increased back to the normal rate.  They had a very long list of other areas where funding was reduced and want back to the previous level.

Updates on the new Dover High School by school principal, Dr. Evelyn Edney.  The top concern by the school as well as the public were traffic patterns.  The school has made changes in terms of signage and assigned parking to help ease the local strain for neighborhoods in the surrounding area.

Board member Lindell indicated he has spoken with other school boards in the state about the way the Delaware Department of Education has treated the priority schools situation in Red Clay Consolidated and Christina school districts.  Lindell indicated the basis for these decisions is test scores, but the DOE has been known to make errors in the past.  Lindell and Superintendent Dr. Thomas spoke about Capital’s graduation rates having many errors in the past, but once the DOE officially publishes these numbers it is difficult to fix.  Lindell indicated there is a lot of discussion about the Delaware DOE and the school boards need to make a firmer stance with them.

Lindell once again stated he wants parents to be able to have the choice to opt-out of standardized testing.  He stated that if special education parents have the choice, all parents should.  The only apparatus that allows students not to take the upcoming Smarter Balanced Assessment is the legislation passed through Senate Bill 229 in Delaware, which allows for the most severely complex special education students to have an alternate test.

Board member Sean Christensen discussed his feelings on the recent school lockdown in Capital School District when a person was shot in downtown Dover.  He felt parents should have been notified of the lockdown within minutes of the event.  Dr. Thomas explained social media knows about situations before the districts or schools have even been notified by police, resulting in hundreds of calls from parents to board members, the district, and schools.  He reiterated that no parent can enter a school during a lockdown, and no student or staff member is able to leave.  Board President Kay Dietz-Sass felt the schools and district handled the situation very well.  Dr. Thomas said discussion with the Dover Police Department about quicker notification could help ease concerns.

Another big topic was how organizations in the City of Dover have to pay high rents for usage of Capital schools.  Christensen did a comparison with other districts in the state, and found Capital charges higher rents than other districts.  He feels the district needs to give back to the community that allows them to have the buildings in the first place since taxpayers pay for these places.