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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

Is Michigan Enhancing Special Education or Destroying It?

Over the past week, I’ve received several e-mails from concerned friends regarding the Michigan Department of Education’s proposed changes to the administrative rules that govern special education and services.  All of these changes to the Michigan Administrative Rules for Special Education (MARSE) are posted on a state government website both as a summary and in complete form

The proposed changes are comprehensive, and will affect every student who receives special services in the state of Michigan.  Officials from Michigan’s Department of Education have publicly stated their intent to align Michigan state standards with federal law, modernize outdated language, add specialized teaching positions and increase parent involvement through these changes.

However, some family advocates and non-profit organizations such as the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates have advised that the new rules should be rescinded.

The Pros and The Cons

It’s important to understand the arguments on both sides of the MARSE changes before they become promulgated and legally binding.  Here is a summary of the advantages and disadvantages, as described by the state of Michigan and those protesting the changes.

Pro: Parents are kept informed, and their input is welcome at every stage of the evaluation, IEP and instructional process.  Parents will be required to sign a consent for the provision of services 10 days before the IEP meeting so that they know what the process is.

Con: Parents are required to consent to the provision of services without knowing what those services are.  This is not informed consent.  Parents are no longer permitted to attach a written statement of dissent to the IEP.  Furthermore, parents no longer have 90 days to file a formal complaint, they will have only 45 days.

Pro: Language has been changed to explain exactly which professionals are qualified to make an evaluation for each category of disability.  This will make evaluations more precise, and remove unnecessary staff from evaluations and IEPs.

Con: The Multi-Disciplinary Evaluation Team (MET) has been completely removed from the new rules.  Only one specialist is required to evaluate a student for cognitive impairment, visual impairment, physical impairment, other health impairment, speech and language impairment, early childhood developmental delay, specific learning disability and traumatic brain injury.  For students with physical impairment, other health impairment and traumatic brain injury, a physician’s assistant with a bachelor’s degree is permitted to make the evaluation.  Physician’s assistants are trained in general practice, not in specialties such as pediatrics, psychiatry, orthopedic surgery or neurology.  Allowing a physician’s assistant to be a sole or primary evaluator will increase the risk of inaccurate assessments.  The MET provides necessary checks and balances in the evaluation process.

Pro: New teaching positions have been created for a vision education specialist and a deaf or hard of hearing specialist to provide better services to students.

Con: The teaching qualifications are being rewritten and reduced.

Pro: Services will be delivered more quickly to students on the new timeline.  After a parent consents to initial evaluation, each public agency will have 30 days to complete the evaluation, determine eligibility and request parental consent for services.

Con: Short term goals are being eliminated from IEPs.  Only measurable annual goals will go on the IEP.  So even though services may start sooner, there won’t be checks and balances during the school year.

Pro: Intermediate School Districts (ISDs) can review their staffing needs on an annual basis to “meet the individual needs of students with disabilities,” according to Venessa Keesler, deputy superintendent for education services with the Michigan Department of Education.

Con: ISDs will be permitted to keep plans “on file” for alternative programming at the ISD office, not at any state office. Alternative programming includes class size guidelines and caseload guidelines.  In addition, transportation requirements and identification of school administrators in charge of special education will be “on file” and not made public.  Furthermore, the alternative programming may change from year to year at the ISD’s discretion.  This means larger classes for special education, inconsistent staffing from year to year for students who need consistency, lack of transportation for some special education students, and families will be kept in the dark about who is making these decisions.

Pro: Language has been updated to describe eligibility rules more precisely.

Con: A subtle change in wording for the eligibility requirements for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) will significantly reduce the number of students who qualify for ASD services.  For example, in order to document limited use of nonverbal communication behaviors, a student must demonstrate impairment in all of the following: eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures and gestures.  Most students with ASD have difficulty with some, but not all, nonverbal behaviors, so those students would not meet this requirement and would be sent unsupported into general education classrooms.

Pro: The new Michigan standards are more closely aligned with requirements in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA 2004).

Con: The new Michigan standards have been written to cut costs and may violate IDEA 2004 in several places.  This means that MARSE will immediately be challenged in court, a lengthy and expensive process that may cost the state more money than it expects to save.

The state of Michigan is accepting public comments on the proposed MARSE changes until 5:00pm on March 13, 2014.  Here is the link to the public comment website.  Take the time to make your opinion known!

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Karen Wang

Written on March 12, 2014 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"

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