When confronted this March with a 146-page, jargon-packed document describing how Michigan plans to overhaul its special education services, many educators, parents, and advocates for students with disabilities felt overwhelmed. So, too, did some of the students.
For More Information
| More information about the proposed regulations is available on the Michigan Department of Education’s Web site at www.mde.st ate.mi.us/off/
“I know some rules about my school life might be changed,” said Daniel J. Plotzke, 23, a high school student with Down syndrome, in written testimony submitted as part of a recent lawsuit against the state. “I should be allowed to say how I feel about changing the rules. I can understand things if you give me enough time and support.”
Today, thanks to a ruling in that lawsuit, Mr. Plotzke and others are getting more time.
Initially, the public was given 45 days to comb through the regulatory fine print of the special education document and submit comments to the Michigan Department of Education on the proposed changes, which were released on March 2. Parents and other advocates subsequently protested at the state Capitol and used public hearings to plead for more time, but to no avail.
So they turned to the courts, a familiar arena for special education battles in Michigan. Less familiar was the legal strategy used by their lawyer, Calvin A. Luker. Mr. Luker did not build the case against the department of education on the grounds that the parents who had sought his help needed more time to review the proposed regulatory change, but rather that their children did.
“If we couldn’t comprehend the changes in that time, what about students with cognitive disabilities?,” said Mr. Luker, a lawyer from Royal Oak, Mich. “Now we’ll all have a chance to go through the rules carefully.”
The tactic paid off, when an Ingham County Circuit Court judge agreed on April 27 to extend the period for public review and comment until Sept. 30. The public-comment period on the plan originally had been set to expire on April 16, although the department of education had agreed to extend it by one month because of the public outcry.
In the view of Michael Will-iamson, Michigan’s deputy superintendent of education services, the process of changing the state’s special education regulations has hardly been on a fast track. It began eight years ago, he said, when the state put together a task force, consisting of special education advocates, students, and officials, to recommend changes.
Still, he said, “I hope the prolonged conversation will help all of us think that through more carefully.”
“I respect the process of public comment,” Mr. Williamson added. “I am heartened by the passion that parents and advocates demonstrated. I want what’s best for students.”
Classifications Would Shift
As they now stand, Michigan’s proposed rules would change the way the state classifies students’ disabilities by consolidating the current categories of disabilities. For example, the three categories of “severely,” “trainable,” and “educable” mentally impaired would all fall under a single, “cognitive impairment” category.
Some school administrators have said the move, which follows a national trend away from narrow, specific disability classifications toward systems that focus on students’ needs for services, would allow them welcome flexibility. But some parents fear that, without a specific classification, some of the related medical services the children receive might be in jeopardy.
Mr. Williamson argued that the changes would improve services for students.
“We’re a diverse state,” he said. “It would get us from thinking about children by classification and by group toward a system that focuses on individual students and their needs.”
The changes would also remove certain requirements for special education services provided by local districts, such as those governing class size and student-teacher ratios. In that way, the proposed changes would give local school districts more freedom and power in the special education arena, state officials say. Some critics, though, fear the changes could limit eligibility for services.
The state has had its existing special education rules in place since before the passage in 1975 of the landmark federal law now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Today, Michigan has been instructed by the U.S. Department of Education to bring its system into closer alignment with the federal law, although a deadline for doing so has not been set.
Mr. Williamson said a major goal of the proposed changes is to bring the state more in line with the IDEA’s emphasis on meeting individual students’ needs, rather than having the educational services they receive determined primarily by their particular disability classifications.
State education department officials had hoped to have the process wrapped up before Thomas D. Watkins Jr. took over as superintendent of public instruction on April 30, Mr. Williamson said.
The Case in Context
Criticism of the proposed rule changes have come not only from parents and advocates, but also from local school officials. Of the 4,000 comments received as of last week, many came from districts with concerns on issues such as whether granting local officials more discretion would lead to inconsistencies in the delivery of special education services statewide.
Some critics believe the state’s plan should be viewed in the context of a series of class actions dating to 1979, in which Michigan has been ordered to pay some $1 billion to school districts to compensate them for the state’s failure to adequately pay for its mandates on special education.
Local districts filed the latest such class action in November, and its outcome is still pending. Some critics contend that the proposed rules constitute the state’s attempt to reduce its liability by shifting primary responsibility for special education to local districts. (“Mich. Sued 3rd Time Over Spec. Ed. Funds,” Dec. 6, 2000.)
Mr. Williamson, however, denied that the changes were proposed in response to the districts’ lawsuit, commonly known as the “Durant III” case. A series of special education funding lawsuits in Michigan have come to be referred to as the “Durant cases” after Donald Durant, who was president of the Fitzgerald, Mich., school board at the time the first case was filed.
“That’s purely coincidental with the timing of the Durant case,” Mr. Williamson said.
As debate over the regulations continues, Mr. Luker said he hopes the court decision in his clients’ favor will lead to greater accommodations for those with disabilities in the policymaking process.
In the special education lawsuit, Mr. Luker argued that the students needed more time than the standard public- comment process allows, especially those students with cognitive or visual impairments that make it difficult to read and understand such a document. And he pointed out that the department had not offered special accommodations for such students, including making the document available in Braille.
Although the lawsuit named the 23-year-old Mr. Plotzke and several other students as plaintiffs, it is a class action representing the 220,000 Michigan students who receive special education services. In Michigan, students are eligible for such services until their 26th birthdays.
Mr. Luker said several advocacy groups, along with the state education department’s special education office, will conduct focus groups in which the proposed changes will be explained to students with disabilities. The officials will help link the students’ comments to specific rules, and the comments will be formed into formal responses for the record.
“If, after all of this, not one student with a disability makes a public comment, I will be humiliated,” Mr. Luker said. “Then I will have been just another person who exploited the disabled.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2001 edition of Education Week as Mich. Students Win More Time To Study Special Ed. Plan