Crowds gather to support special education

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WARWICK — Hundreds of parents, students, teachers and administrators gathered at the Community College of Rhode Island campus in Warwick on November 7 to express to the Board of Regents their almost unanimous disapproval of the proposed changes to regulations governing the education of children with disabilities.

A smaller, but equally vocal crowd gathered the following night at the University of Rhode Island campus in Providence for a second hearing.

The proposed changes, which were presented to the Board of Regents by the Department of Education for consideration, would affect many areas of special education in Rhode Island’s public and private schools.

Some of the most controversial changes include:

• Changing speech therapy from a special education classification to a "related service." In its justification for the proposal, the state Department of Education says that this change would eliminate the need for children who require speech therapy to qualify for special education. Parents of children who receive this therapy, as well as the speech therapists who provide it, however, fear that this change will result in decreased funding and will diminish the therapist’s ability to service all the children who need assistance in schools.

• Eliminate specific language requiring extended school year services for special education students whose disabilities require longer attendance beyond the customary school year. Currently the state regulations specifically require a 230-day program be provided for students who fall into certain categories of disabilities. The new language leaves the decision of how long extended school year services are and who receives them to a team of special educators, therapists, administrators and the child’s parents.

• Eliminating specific case load and class size caps for special education teachers and replacing them with the word "sufficient," a change that many parents and educators fear would result in license for school districts to solve budget problems with unfettered increases in case loads and class sizes.

• Changing the way special education is funded and provided in non-public schools by eliminating the state regulations and exclusively following the federal regulations. These federal regulations require the LEA, local education agency or, more simply, school district, where the non-public school is located to provide special education funding and eliminate the current state standard under which the LEA where the child lives, if it is different, would also contribute services if there was an additional need. For example, a special needs child lives in Providence and attends a non-public school in Johnston, under the current regulations, if necessary, that child would receive special education funding or services from the non-public school, and the Providence and Johnston school districts. If the proposed changes are accepted by the board, the funding would only come from Johnston, and if there was additional need the school district where the child lives would not be required to contribute services. The school district where the child lives is exempt from providing services despite the fact that the child lives in Providence, his parents pay school taxes to Providence, and, as one Catholic school parent pointed out, the child could very well go on to live in Providence after graduation.

At the Warwick hearing, several hundred people took advantage of the opportunity to address the board with their concerns about the proposed changes. The room where the hearing was scheduled was far too small to handle the crowd and as members of the board tried to find a larger room to hold the hearings, parents and teachers filled all the seats, packed the walkways, sat on the floor and began to spill out into the hallway.

Because of the overwhelming response to Wednesday's hearings the board announced at the start of Thursday's hearings that they had scheduled two additional hearings, one on Monday, November 26 at 7 p.m. at Davies Career and Technical High School in Lincoln and another on Monday, December 3 at 6 p.m. at South Kingstown High School.

During last week's hearings speech therapists, occupational therapists, special education teachers, classroom teachers, principals, superintendents, students and parents all testified about various aspects of the proposals. The vast majority of speakers were not in favor of accepting the recommendations.

Many of the speakers were skeptical that the hearings were simply a formality and that the decision to accept the proposed changes had already been made, "Are we going to be effective communicators tonight or just fill the space in our planners marked 'public hearings'?" Kathy Lake, a North Smithfield speech pathologist, asked the board on Wednesday.

Lillian McIntyre, assistant superintendent of Catholic Schools, remains confident that the opinions expressed during the hearings will have an impact on whether or not the Board of Regents accepts the proposed changes. "I absolutely think they will make an impact and I would encourage anyone who feels that they have something to say to exercise their right. I do not feel at this time that we're just being asked to go through the motions." she said.

Despite some skepticism, the large turnout at both of the hearings, as well as the board's quick decision to schedule two additional hearings, was seen by others as indicative of an engaged public and a receptive board.

"I was very encouraged by the large turnout, especially at the first meeting," said McIntyre. "All the parents that testified are fearful of losing ground for their children," she added.

A recurring theme throughout the testimony was the effect the proposed changes would have on special education students, and the ability of teachers and therapists to perform their duties. Many of those who testified were parents who seemed connected by a feeling that the careful balance they had achieved for their children – whatever combination of therapies, enclosed classrooms and special equipment that balance might involve – was in danger of being disrupted by these proposed changes. This potential disruption, they feel, that would do irreparable damage to their children and have a negative effect on the sometimes slow and measured progress their child had made in school.

One woman brought more than words to the stage — she brought her entire family, including her young daughter who suffers from Down's Syndrome. She asked the board to consider the opportunities the changes would be taking away from her daughter with special needs.

A group of parents and children representing the Meadowbrook Waldorf School in Richmond also spoke to the proposed changes, particularly the changes to funding for special education in non-public schools. Like Catholic schools, it is one of many non-public schools whose special education students would be affected by the proposed changes. Many parents spoke to the gap the new regulations would create if the cost to meet special education needs exceeds the approximately $1,100 annually allotted per student by the federal government. "We know that [amount] is not sufficient. What happens when their needs exceed $1,100? Are they going to be left in the cold without services?" one Waldorf school parent asked the board.

Another woman who spoke on behalf of the Waldorf School asked the board to recognize that accepting these proposals would decrease funding for special education students and force many parents to make tough choices. "It will limit the rights of parents to have educational choice for their children," she said, "Most tragically, it will remove children who are already in successful schools."

The plight faced by these parents of children in Waldorf schools is the same as parents of children in Catholic schools. If the proposed changes are accepted by the board, funding for special education in non-public schools will decrease and force parents and schools to make choices that might not be in the best interest of students.

Mary Lennon, whose daughter attends a Catholic school and receives special education services, addressed the board Wednesday night about the effect these proposals would have on her daughter. She called on the board to continue to make Catholic education a viable choice for parents of children with special needs. "Children with disabilities will face enough challenges in life. A well-planned Catholic education with the right supports in place will sustain them," she said.

"I want you to know that a parent who desires a Catholic education for their child with a disability is probably not hoping that their child merely becomes a functioning member of society. Chances are they desire more. More of the same values they want for their other children like faith in God, love and respect for self and others, compassion, discipline, responsibility, dignity, integrity, peace, social justice and the importance of community service," she added.

Lennon finished her testimony to the board by pointing out a simple but important fact: "In the end, this responsibility and commitment of the LEA where the child resides will be tremendously valued because this, after all, may be the community where the child will go on to live."

Despite the different educational philosophies of the various non-public schools that would be affected by a change in these regulations, McIntyre pointed out that there are more similarities than differences. "The parents that presented basically want the very same thing," she said, "They want their children in an environment where they are comfortable, and where they are well-cared for academically, socially and emotionally." They are all "parents who want to see their children realize their full potential, whatever that might be, wherever that might be, whether that’s public or non-public," she added.

Click here to read the Department of Education’s entire proposal.