The New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) released a report, “Special Education: A Service, Not a Place,” April 11. The report was the product of a Special Education Task Force convened by the NJSBA on last year to explore ways public schools could control costs while preserving the quality of special education programs and services. The body also examined statewide efforts to reduce special education classification of children through the consistent use of early intervention strategies, or “multi-tiered frameworks of support.” The report makes 20 recommendations that address early intervention, literacy, shared services, changes in state and federal aid, alternative funding, and training of educators and school board members.
The recommendations of the NJSBA Special Education Task Force include the following:
- Early intervention: The state should develop a multi-tiered system of supports, including programs such as Response to Intervention, Intervention and Referral Services and Positive Behavioral Supports, to identify students with learning needs at an early stage and implement strategies. The process should include ongoing assessment and evaluation. Such early intervention in the general education classroom would improve student outcomes and enable schools to avoid over-classifying children as requiring special education, according to the task force. Additionally, the task force found that by controlling classification through educationally sound strategies, schools could reduce costs.
- Shared services: While many school districts share some special education services, such as transportation, the task force recommended that the New Jersey Department of Education and local school districts explore a voluntary Regionalized Special Education Model/Shared Services Model for special education and related services. Another shared services model cited by the task force would involve regional consortia to complete the filing process for federal funding under the Special Education Medicaid Initiative (SEMI). Currently, some districts opt not to file for reimbursement because the potential benefit is outweighed by the cumbersome filing process. As a result, the state does not receive all of the SEMI funding to which it is entitled. A July 2013 report by the State Auditor indicates that New Jersey state government and school districts could receive an additional $10 million in federal funding through full participation in SEMI.
- Funding: The report recommended restructuring state special education aid to support programs that improve student outcomes; ensuring adequate Extraordinary Special Education Cost Aid, which helps fund out-of-district placement for severely disabled pupils; and providing flexibility in the use of federal special education funding so that it could be applied to supplemental literacy and math programs in inclusive settings. The task force cited research showing that when reading improves, classification rates drop. In addition, the report called for improved auditing processes at the state and local levels to ensure consistent and accurate coding of special education expenditures. The goal, according to the task force, is more accurate expenditure data for special education than is now available. Inconsistent data collection could result in the loss of reimbursement for services, according to the task force.
- Training: In its recommendations on training, the task force addressed teacher preparation programs, professional development for child study teams and other professionals, and programming for board of education members. The state’s teacher preparation programs should focus on the inclusive classroom with training in adapting curriculum, instruction and assessment to meet the needs of all learners. Additionally, child study teams and other educators should receive targeted training on the development and implementation of individual education programs (IEPs) and federal special education requirements. School board member training should address the legal, financial and programmatic aspects of special education, with the goal of improving outcomes. According to the task force, such training would reduce IEP-related conflicts, develop a culture of trust and cooperation among school districts, parents and students, and meet the needs of all students in an inclusive setting.
- Due process: In addition, the task force called for amendment of a 2007 law that places the burden of proof in disputes over individual special education programs on the school district, rather than on the party bringing the complaint. In the task force’s survey, more than 38 percent of respondents cited the need for legislative and regulatory change in the special education adjudication process, with the current placement of the burden of proof on school districts most frequently cited.
Membership of the Group
Dr. Gerald J. Vernotica, associate professor at Montclair State University and a former New Jersey assistant commissioner of education, chaired the task force. He led the group of nine local school board members and administrators, which studied trends in special education programming, funding, and effective practices; consultation with more than 25 special education experts and advocates and state and federal officials; and the administration of surveys to New Jersey school districts and other states’ education agencies and school boards associations. Members of the NJSBA Special Education Task Force include:
- Dr. Gerald Vernotica, chairman, Associate Professor, Montclair State University
- Lynne E. Crawford, South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education (Essex)
- Sheli Dansky, River Edge BOE (Bergen)
- Carol Grossi, Superintendent, Hanover Park Regional School District (Morris)
- Dr. Leon B. Kaplan, Lawrence Township BOE (Mercer)
- Michael Lee, Tabernacle BOE (Burlington)
- Irene LeFebvre, Boonton Town BOE (Morris)
- Charles T. Miller, East Amwell BOE (Hunterdon)
- Valerie Wilson, School Business Administrator, Newark School District (Essex)
- John Bulina, ex officio, President, New Jersey School Boards Association