Published Online: May 2, 2006
Published in Print: May 3, 2006, as Paperwork-Reduction Pilots Off to Slow Start

Paperwork-Reduction Pilots Off to Slow Start

2004 IDEA authorized efforts to reduce burden on special education teachers.

Heralded as a chance to relieve the paperwork burden for special education teachers, two federal pilot programs are getting tepid reviews over the proposed rules for carrying them out.

The 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act allowed the tests of what were billed as ways to reduce such teachers’ workloads. The first, a paperwork-reduction pilot, would allow 15 states to propose ways they would cut down on the administrative tasks placed on teachers and schools.

The second pilot, also available to 15 states, would allow schools to give students with disabilities individualized education programs good for up to three years, with their parents’ approval. The IDEA mandates yearly IEP reviews. The theory is that less-frequent full IEP reviews would translate into improved long-term planning and less paperwork for school staff members.

Neither program has begun. The U.S. Department of Education is still mulling over the comments it received when the proposed rules were released in December, and it has no date for when final rules for the two programs will be promulgated, Jim Bradshaw, a department spokesman, said in an e-mail last month.

Critics say that the proposed rules would transform both pilot programs into intensive research projects. Documenting the results of the pilot programs and then reporting the information to Washington could ultimately mean more, not less, work for teachers, schools, and districts, they say.

“It’s a shame, because we’ve discussed this for years,” Marcia Harding, the associate director for special education in Arkansas, said of the goal of reducing the paperwork in special education.

Staff Burden

Arkansas was one of the states that responded to the Education Department’s request for comments on the proposed rules. In her letter to the federal department, Ms. Harding said that her agency was so understaffed that it was unlikely to be able to devote staff time to collecting data for and managing the pilot programs.

Administering Special Education

States may apply for two pilot programs authorized by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that are intended to reduce paperwork for teachers and schools.

• Paperwork reduction:
This would allow states to identify ways to reduce paperwork burdens and other administrative duties that are directly related to the IDEA. The secretary of education may grant waivers of certain statutory or regulatory requirements for this program, but not regulations that relate to civil rights protections or procedural safeguards.

• Multiyear individualized education program:
The IEP that guides the education of special education students must be reevaluated by schools and parents each year. The pilot would allow schools the option to offer an IEP of up to three years that is designed to coincide with the “natural transition points” for a child, such as from elementary to middle school. Parents may decline the multiyear plan.

In addition, she told the department, she felt that parents were unlikely to be willing to drop many of the components of the current IEP process in favor of an untried method that they fear may not meet their children’s needs.

Ms. Harding said in an interview that under the proposed rules, it’s unlikely that Arkansas would apply to participate in the pilot programs.

“It just adds to our burden tremendously,” she said of the pending plan.

Her comments were echoed by Stephanie J. Petska, the director of special education for the Wisconsin department of public instruction. Ms. Petska zeroed in on annual incentive payments of $25,000 that the federal department has offered to each participating state to help them with the pilot programs and the research components.

“Absent a significant increase in funding, many states will not have the capacity to participate in this program,” she wrote in her comments on the rules.

Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group for the nation’s large urban school districts, criticized the proposed rules for their vagueness.

Speaking about the proposed paperwork-reduction pilot specifically, he said: “There’s probably a large number of states and a large number of districts that would like to do that.” The problem, Mr. Simering said, is that the proposed rules make clear what could not be waived—civil rights protections and procedural safeguards for students—without specifying what paperwork might be waived.

Possible Benefits

The proposed rules, which were published Dec. 19 in the Federal Register, note that the 2004 IDEA reauthorization requires the Education Department to report on the effectiveness of the pilot programs.

To do so, the department has proposed having the Institute of Education Sciences, which oversees most federally-funded education research, administer a “quasi-experimental” research design that would collect data in such areas as educational and functional results for students in the pilots compared with those for students who were not, the allocation of instructional time for both groups, the quality of special education plans for both groups, and teacher, student, and parent satisfaction among pilot-program participants.

States would be responsible for designing the programs, as well as gathering information, conducting surveys, and participating in interviews with the IES. The proposed rules say that it would take a minimum of four months from the time states were awarded one of the pilot programs until implementation.

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education in Alexandria, Va., in its written comments to the department, said that “the burden of the proposed research component for this pilot project is so overwhelming that it will serve to give most states pause before even considering applying.”

And, the clock is ticking. The law requires the Education Department to update Congress on the progress of the pilot programs two years after the law was signed, which would be November.

But not all special educators are critics. Luann Purcell, the executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education, a group affiliated with the Council for Exceptional Children in Arlington, Va., says her members generally like the idea of a multiyear IEP.

Steve Milliken, the president of CASE, says he sees the value of a longer IEP review cycle, even if it wouldn’t reduce any paperwork. He hopes that his state, Nebraska, applies for the pilot program. Multiyear IEPs could improve planning and allow educators to more easily set long-term goals for students, he believes.

“You’ve got to build up the trust relationship [with parents], and you’ve got to build in the accountability,” said Mr. Milliken, the director of special services for the 6,000-student Westside district in Omaha, Neb. “I see it having a lot of benefit.”

Vol. 25, Issue 34, Page 14

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