After two days of carefully outlining changes in federal special education policy wrought by recently unveiled regulations, Department of Education officials last week acknowledged that they weren’t ready to give an audience of special educators what it wanted most: answers to hundreds of specific questions.
The Education Department’s office of special education programs planned its annual leadership conference to give school, district, and state special education officials a primer on the regulations covering the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law that governs the education of 6.7 million students in special education. The regulations were released Aug. 3 and were published in the Federal Register on Aug. 14. (“Final IDEA Regulations Clarify Key Issues,” Aug. 9, 2006.)
But to provide more details, OSEP said it is taking the regulations on a road trip.
The department will hold three regional meetings devoted to implementation issues in January and February. In addition, the department plans eight informal public meetings around the country to introduce the regulations to the public.
The first of those public meetings will be held Sept. 26 in Charlotte, N.C., and Sept. 27 in Tampa, Fla. Additional gatherings will be held in Philadelphia, Seattle, Minneapolis, Dallas, Denver, and Sacramento, Calif., but the dates have not yet been set.
“It was an idea to reach a broader audience, to get out and get very personal,” Alexa Posny, the director of OSEP, said in an interview. “I’m hoping it’s community members who are there—people who would not ordinarily come to a conference like this.”
Also, OSEP unveiled a Web site, http://idea.ed.gov/, which officials say will be a frequently updated repository of information related to the IDEA regulations, including video interviews, question-and-answer sections, and links to government-funded agencies that provide technical assistance to schools, states, and parents.
Normally, the annual OSEP conference, which was held Aug. 28-30 this year, might focus on giving practical information to special educators, Ms. Posny said. But with the regulations released just two weeks before this year’s conference, she said, “this was a very intentional overview.”
Still, she wanted attendees to leave with the idea that the regulations have been made as user-friendly as possible, and that the Education Department considered all of the more than 5,500 public comments submitted in response to draft regulations.
“One comment from one person absolutely could have made a difference,” Ms. Posny said. “Every one of them was read, and every one of them was responded to.”
Another goal was to let state and local special education directors know there is nothing to fear in the new regulations, said Ms. Posny, a former deputy commissioner of education in Kansas. What special educators saw in the 2004 renewal of the IDEA and in the proposed regulations are in the final regulations, she said.
“There aren’t any surprises,” she added.
The plan for public meetings, as well as the Web site, mollified some in the crowd of close to 700 who said privately that the conference was long on details about the IDEA regulations, but short on interpretations for how the rules might apply to specific situations.
“They were grounding us all in what the regulations say, even though we all have that,” said Bill East, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, in Alexandria, Va.
Room for Interpretation?
“Welcome back to school,” John H. Hager, the department’s assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, said in opening the conference. “That’s essentially what this is—a school on the regulations.”
But the presenters stressed repeatedly that there were some questions they could not answer without vetting from Education Departments lawyers.
Department officials spent 90 minutes at the end of the conference answering some questions, many of which related to the issues of “response to intervention,” highly qualified teachers, and students with special education needs who are placed by their parents in private schools.
For example, even a veteran teacher may be considered “new” for the purposes of determining highly qualified status, if that teacher is new to teaching students in special education, said M. Rene Islas, an Education Department official.
K. Lynn Boyer, the special education director for West Virginia, said he was interested in hearing “a larger context” for the response- to-intervention model and believed the conference provided that.
Response to intervention, an approach emphasized in the IDEA, requires teachers to use several research-based interventions with a child who is not achieving at the same rate as his or her peers. (“RTI Method Gets Boost in Spec. Ed.,” Nov. 30, 2005.)
The final regulations state that the Education Department is not requiring states to use the RTI method, which the leadership conference made clear.
“We’re very committed to RTI in West Virginia,” said Ms. Boyer. “But it will take some time for locals to begin to be comfortable with it.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Gives Primer on IDEA Regulations