Advocates for New Jersey’s more than 200,000 students with disabilities have recently succeeded in protecting and advancing these students’ educational rights before the State Board of Education and the State Legislature.
These victories demonstrate the growing strength of grassroots organizations and parents across the Garden State who mobilized to oppose proposed changes in special education laws and regulations. The proposals would have undermined the rights of students with disabilities to appropriate, quality special education services delivered in the least restrictive classroom setting.
Advocates scored a significant victory when Governor Chris Christie’s administration withdrew proposed rules that would have eliminated or undercut important and longstanding special education safeguards. The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) took the unusual step of scrapping the proposal after an outpouring of opposition from parents and advocates from the disability community, including Education Law Center. After withdrawing the proposal last week, NJDOE re-adopted the existing rules with only minor technical changes.
The proposed rules would have limited the time-frame for parental review of student evaluations, while extending the period for districts to perform the evaluations. The proposals also would have allowed staff other than child study team members to serve as case managers, and would have eliminated necessary child study team members and critical transition staff.
In opposing the proposal, ELC emphasized that the current rules provide greater clarity and cost efficiency, while maintaining fairness and accountability. ELC also noted the demonstrable benefit the current rules have had for students, parents, teachers and administrators, including improved school climate and operations.
In another victory, advocates succeeded in blocking action on a bill (S1929/A2869), which would have permitted the placement of special education students in sectarian schools. This bill drew unified opposition from a wide range of groups including ELC, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN), and the ACLU-NJ.
ELC opposed the bill because it was likely to increase segregation of special education students, contrary to federal and state laws requiring children with disabilities to be educated alongside their non-disabled peers to the greatest extent possible.
In another positive development, a bill (S2441/A3603) requiring teachers in general education classes to receive targeted professional development to improve their ability to serve students with learning disabilities was approved by the Legislature and then signed into law by Governor Christie on August 7.
Regarding this legislation, ELC drove home the key issue that students with disabilities can only effectively be served if general education teachers, as well as special education staff, understand the particular needs of students with disabilities. The Legislature, however, did not expand the scope of the bill to cover all disabilities, not only learning disabilities, as ELC recommended.
ELC also supported a bill (S2439/A3608), approved by both houses of the Legislature, directing the State Board of Education to adopt the International Dyslexia Association’s definition of dyslexia in New Jersey’s special education regulations.
ELC and other advocates backed several other bills that passed out of committee but have not yet secured full legislative approval. These include:
? S2334, which creates a database of all special education administrative law decisions on the Department’s website;
? S2442/A3605, which ensures that all Kindergartners and other children who are new to a district are screened for learning disabilities;
? S2333, which requires NJDOE to train teachers and administrators to prevent the over-identification of students of color with learning disabilities for special education services. [Read ELC testimony on multiple bills here.]
Advocates will continue to press for final passage of these bills, while urging legislators to broaden the scope of the bills to cover all students with disabilities.
“We are heartened by our recent successes in safeguarding the rights of students with disabilities over the last several months,” said Ruth Lowenkron, ELC Senior Attorney. “We are also energized to move forward with a positive agenda to advance educational opportunities for these students. But rest assured that we will also remain vigilant and oppose changes that could result in the denial of an appropriate education as guaranteed under state and federal law.”
Ruth Deale Lowenkron, Esq.
973-624-1815, x 21
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications