Okay, Parents, Before you Call Me

If you've got kids in special education, don't panic.

The best is yet to come. Not the worst. The best. Let me explain.

Yes, legislation has been introduced in Boston to reform special education in the Commonwealth. And, frankly, it needs reforming. So that's not a surprise to anyone.

And students should receive the services they really need.

Generally, the parents of special education students, a well organized special interest group, panic and start to call and write whenever any changes are mentioned. Even rumors of changes.

This time, things are a little different. A lot of the parents have a coalition of sorts, a group that has basically said, yes, reform is needed, and we'll bend if you guys bend. Let's compromise. Not every parent is on board, of course, as was demonstrated earlier this week in the State House when parents made their presence quite know, by wearing red, and lobbying legislators.

A study group has researched the problem, and come up with the compromise, the legislation before the House this year. It's designed so that kids who really need special education will get more resources, more money, more help. But, the kids who really don't need special education, will be faced with reality. And school districts will get more money to pay the bills.

The reasons. Massachusetts has the highest percentage of kids in special education. About 17 percent of enrollment. Compared with a national average of 9 to 11 percent. Kids with discipline problems, for example, are often shuttled off into special education. And some parents take advantage of the system by shopping for diagnoses, looking for a test or doctor who will say, yes, the kids has a problem.

In addition, Massachusetts used a lower standard than the other 49 states, in determining who is eligible for special education services and what services will be provided. The federal standards call for a free and appropriate education for children with disabilities who need individualized education plans. Our standards call for "maximum feasible" services.

The legislation would have Massachusetts adopt the federal standards and change eligibility definitions from "child with special needs" to "child with a disability."

In Massachusetts, right now, if you're out shopping for a diagnosis, you can get two independent, and publicly funded, evaluations if you don't like the evaluation provided by your local schools. And paid for by the district schools. These tests aren't cheap.

If legislation is approved, parents can go ahead and get another evaluation, but they'll have to pay for it. We'll pay once, parents pay once.

Don't like the results? Legislation would give the Department of Education additional money to handle appeals, and extra money to increase monitoring and training to provide higher quality first evaluations.

In fact, the legislation would add $15 million new state dollars to school districts to help pay for the most expensive placements and fiscal incentives for school districts to develop programs for students with more complex needs close to home. We'll also require that priority be given to programs in Massachusetts when out-of-district placements are considered. Right now, our tax dollars can send a child to a private school for, say, the deaf, when adequate schools are found inside our borders.

Right now, for example, if it costs $30,000 to send a child to a special school, the local school district pays for it. Under the pending legislation, the state would share the cost, giving local schools more money to spend on education in general. In fact, if a school receives reimbursement by a third party, an insurer, for example, or Medicaid, half of that revenue will be earmarked for the local school committee. Current law doesn't earmark any funds.

We are not trying to cut services for children who truly need them. But, we are trying to eliminate waste and spend your tax dollars wisely. I welcome your comments.

Other issues in the district....Don't forget my three hour seminar for women, "Refuse to Be a Victim," from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, January 31st, at the Westfield YMCA. Just call my office and leave your name, address and phone number to register. There's a fee of $10, payable at the door.

If you missed my office hours in the past, schedule a visit for Friday, February 13th, or Friday, February, February 27th. From 10 to noon both days, at the Westfield Boys and Girls Club. Walk-ins are welcome, or you can call my office for an appointment at any time.

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