Lori Higgins Detroit Free Press
Published 6:00 AM EDT Oct 2, 2018
If Laurie Kondek could fix what ails Michigan’s special education system, it would be this: She would ensure that children like her Samuel — who is severely autistic and has several other ailments — would have the same shot at success as kids with no special needs.
“You have these special ed kids who have so much potential. Maybe they’re not going to fly as high academically … but my kid is just as valuable,” said Kondek, who lives in Northville and has one son who attends the local district there and another who attends a nearby charter school.
To Kondek and many others, Michigan is falling short. And the U.S. Department of Education agrees, identifying Michigan in a recent report as the only state in the nation “needing intervention” this year because of the poor academic performance, high dropout rates and low graduation rates of its special education students.
Michigan shared the distinction with the District of Columbia, plus the U.S. territories of Palau and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands. If Michigan remains in that designation for three straight years, it could lose some federal funding.
How bad are Michigan’s results? The education department gave Michigan a 59 percent for its outcomes for special education students — much of it based on student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a rigorous national exam given to a representative sample of students in each state. The state with the highest percentage: Massachusetts with 88.75.
More: Study: Michigan special education is underfunded by $700M
More: 13 Michigan schools earn coveted Blue Ribbon awards
Here’s a look at the data that earned Michigan the designation, one of four given by the education department (meets expectations, needs assistance, needs intervention and needs substantial intervention):
- Only 22 percent of fourth-graders and 34 percent of eighth-graders scored at or above the basic level in reading on the NAEP, which breaks down scores in four levels (below basic, basic, proficient and advanced).
- Only 39 percent of fourth-graders and 19 percent of eighth-graders scored at or above the basic level in math on the NAEP.
- 29 percent dropped out of school during the 2016-17 school year.
- Only 63 percent earned a traditional high school diploma.
Michigan had been designated previously as needing assistance.
The data isn’t surprising to Marcie Lipsitt, the organizer of a Wednesday rally in Lansing on special education issues and a vocal critic of how the state and local school districts address the needs of such students.
Lipsitt said Michigan, for instance, sets too high a bar for identifying a child as having a learning disability. And she believes it often ignores what she describes as “glaring violations” of the law.
“There’s no accountability, no transparency. … There is no concern for the outcomes for children,” Lipsitt said.
The rally will include speeches from a bipartisan set of speakers — including Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic candidate for governor, and Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. Lipsitt said Whitmer’s opponent in November’s election, Republican Bill Schuette, was invited but no one from his campaign responded.
Calley, a longtime special education advocate and the father of a child with autism who attends public schools, said there is too much focus on compliance at the state level and not enough on improving programs.
“If we were more concerned about identifying what kids need and providing it … and helping school districts to develop the resources and knowledge and know-how to be effective, we’d be way better off,” Calley said. “It can’t just be about compliance.”
Michigan’s focus on compliance is clear in the federal report: It earned just 8 out of 24 points for results, and 17 out of 20 points for compliance. Massachusetts, on the other hand, earned 21 points for results and 18 for compliance.
Calley believes one way for schools to improve outcomes for students with disabilities is through behavior management programs — such as positive behavior interventions and support. More commonly known as PBIS, it’s a more proactive approach to behavior management that focuses on teaching good behavior and expectations rather than addressing behavior after the fact.
Calley said he doesn’t have data showing behavior is more of an issue with special education students, but “I just know … a child with autism, for example, you need to much more directly and proactively teach and reinforce desired behavior.”
Such behavior approaches keeps kids in school learning, Calley said.
“A student that’s not in school is not learning.”
Fight to get services
For much of Samuel’s education, Kondek has fought to get services he needs —beginning with trying to get her son identified as special needs so he could begin receiving preschool services. It took her from the time he was 2 until he turned 4.
The fight has continued. Now, she works to ensure that her son has assistance such as a full-time aide in the classroom. It’s crucial not just for him, she said, but also for his teachers. That’s important, she said, given that there’s currently a shortage of special education teachers.
“If there’s not enough adult support in the classroom for these teachers, they aren’t set up to succeed,” Kondek said.
Just as important, others said, is properly funding special education programs. Students with special needs are often more difficult to educate because they need additional resources. Federal law requires they receive a free and appropriate education.
Calley chairs a special education task force that last year released a report showing the state is underfunding special education by $700 million. That dollar amount is the difference between what it costs to educate special education students in Michigan and what the state spends to educate them.
That report noted that under the current system, the state funds special education students either through the per-pupil grant schools receive — which varies by school district — or 28.61 percent of the expenses associated with educating the child. Schools get whichever of the two is the greatest amount.
But that often creates inequities, Calley said. The lowest per-pupil amount a district can receive is a little under $8,000, but some districts receive well over $12,000 per pupil.
Calley says it would be better to have a system that would — for each special education student — pay schools a per-pupil amount as well as a percentage of the costs to educate that student.
Michelle Fecteau, a Democrat on the State Board of Education, is also among Wednesday’s speakers. And like Calley, she has experience as a parent — she has had one biological child and three children she fostered who required special education services. As one of eight elected board members, Fecteau says she gets a couple of phone calls a week from people with concerns about special education.
“I’ve talked to plenty of parents who struggle to get the services they need,” Fecteau said. At the same time, she said, “I’ve talked to principals that want to provide those services, but they don’t have the resources to do it.”
The people who work in special education programs — at the local level and the state level — “are not the villains,” Fecteau said.
“We need to come together to fight for better financing and better models for supporting kids and their families,” she said. “I don’t think our state invests enough in these kids.”
“I think these kids are worth that investment.”
Rally seeks to spark discussions
Lipsitt is hoping the rally will spark a conversation about special education, and that it will become a key issue in the race for November elections. She’s hopeful that whoever the next governor is will rescind an executive order issued in the 1990s by then-Gov. John Engler that stripped much of the state board’s power and put it in the hands of the state superintendent. She believes the special education system has deteriorated since then.
Lipsitt also believes that parents of children who don’t have disabilities need to become more cognizant of what she calls a crisis in special education.
“People have to use their voices, their pens. They have to use their presence on social media and talk about the state of education in Michigan,” Lipsitt said. “Public education is not serving children in Michigan, and that includes children with disabilities.”
State working to improve outcomes
Teri Chapman, director of the office of special education at the Michigan Department of Education, was not available for comment last week, said Bill DiSessa, an MDE spokesman.
He provided a statement that acknowledged outcomes for students with disabilities — graduation rates, dropout rates and NAEP results — “are the underperforming factors identified in the U.S. Department of Education’s report.”
The statement said the MDE is “in the process of moving in a new direction to improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities.” It is part of the department’s efforts to transform Michigan from a state that is struggling with academic outcomes to a state that is a Top 10 performer.
That effort includes an “evolving partnership” between MDE and intermediate school districts in the state that “further ensures the alignment and coordination that evidence-based practices are implemented and supported in local districts.”
Fecteau said the board briefly discussed the federal report in August.
“I would like to have a discussion at the state board that looks into this more deeply, and understand why this is the way it is,” she said of Michigan’s status as needing intervention. “What are the root causes … and where do we really need to make some changes and address it.”
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6551, [email protected] or @LoriAHiggins
If you want to go
The Michigan Kids with IEPs Count Day Rally — which seeks to draw attention to the need to fix the special education system in Michigan — is set for 12:30-2:30 p.m. Wednesday on the steps of the Michigan Capitol.
Among the speakers:
- Lt. Gov. Brian Calley
- Gretchen Whitmer, Democratic candidate for governor
- Andy Levin, Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress
- Michelle Fecteau, Democratic member of the State Board of Education
- Tom McMillin, Republican member of the State Board of Education
- Mark McWilliams, Michigan Protection and Advocacy
- Colleen Allen, president and CEO, Autism Alliance of Michigan
- Kristin Totten, education attorney, ACLU of Michigan
For more information, contact organizer Marcie Lipsitt at 248-514-2101 or at [email protected]
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