The Michigan state board of education has unanimously approved a package of rules for special education, closing the door on a yearlong battle with angry parents, students, and advocates for children with disabilities. The dispute had escalated into a protest at the state Capitol in Lansing and a lawsuit filed to extend the period for public comment.
By heeding input from the public and removing the most controversial proposed changes to the set of 28-year-old laws that regulate special education services in the state, education officials have won over their former critics, said T.J. Bucholz, a spokesman for state Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas D. Watkins Jr.
For instance, the package of rules, approved Feb. 14, keeps in place caps on the number of special education students assigned to any one teacher. Those caps depend on the nature of a child’s disability. The changes proposed a year ago, which drew sharp criticism, would have taken away those restrictions, Mr. Bucholz said.
In large part, the changes simply update the language of the original rules and bring the state into compliance with federal special education laws, he said. Michigan adopted its own special education policy even before the passage of the 1975 federal law that guaranteed students with disabilities a free, appropriate public education, Mr. Bucholz said.
Superintendent Watkins held 18 public hearings and seven informal gatherings around the state to collect views from the public. And the state department of education received 18,000 pieces of public comment—not one of which was positive—on the original proposed changes, Mr. Bucholz said.
“It was the most public comment we have gotten on any issue in 30 years, and I would guess ever,” Mr. Bucholz said. “We listened to them, and it made a difference. It’s been a long road for us. It is a good example of democracy at work.”
Pleading for Time
Last March, the Michigan education department released a 146-page document outlining proposed changes to the state’s special education regulations. Initially, department officials gave the public 45 days to comb through the document and submit comments.
But parents and special education advocates used the public hearings that followed the document’s release to plead for more time to review and critique the proposed changes.
Many of those people staged a protest last April at the Capitol, but state officials wouldn’t budge until a class action filed in the Ingham County Circuit Court on behalf of special education students won an extension of the public-comment period to the end of September.
Mr. Watkins took over as state superintendent in late April, at the height of controversy. His predecessor, Arthur E. Ellis, had been criticized for trying to push the new regulations through too quickly and without enough advice from the public.
When Mr. Watkins took over the job, he was able to separate himself from the existing dispute and look at the issue from a fresh perspective, according to Mr. Bucholz. After reviewing public comments, the new state schools chief markedly changed the proposal to reflect public sentiment.
Those efforts appear to have paid off.
The final rules package drew praise from former critics, such as Deborah Canja, the executive director of CAUSE, an Okemos, Mich.-based umbrella organization of special education advocacy groups in the state.
“People thought those things were unworkable,” Ms. Canja said. “But Mr. Watkins spent an enormous amount of time listening, and he has not gone forward with the controversial changes. We believe this is just the start of evaluation and change designed to strengthen our system and improve our system.”
The state school board forwarded the approved set of rules to the legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules for approval. The process of making the changes final may take until this spring, Mr. Bucholz said. Then, school districts would be given a year to adopt the changes.
Even after the final rules take effect, local school officials will be able appeal any of the rules if they believe they can handle a situation in a better way, Mr. Bucholz said.
“If they have a better way to fix the wagon, we will listen,” he said. “We consider all of this to be a victory for the children and the parents in the state.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Michigan Board Vote Ends Battle On Spec. Ed. Regulations