Two Members of NJ's Special Education Task Force Decry Lack of Input and Substance

Three years ago in January 2013 NJ Senators Jennifer Beck and Teresa Ruiz sponsored a bill to create a Task Force to study the state’s myriad problems in providing special education to its 220,000 children who meet eligibility requirements. Today two members of that Task Force, Jean Pasternak and Kristin Hennessy, have an editorial in NJ Spotlight that decries the Task Force’s failure to adequately listen to parents and teachers who struggle to provide necessary and contractual services to students who have special needs.

From the editorial:
We expected the task force would identify problems and recommend practical solutions for those weary students, parents, and teachers whose voices were in harmony about what was wrong and what needed to be done to make special education work in New Jersey. 
But the objectives, as outlined in the law -- establishing the task force to study the issues and present a fact-based, scientifically researched set of recommendations -- were not followed. The results of two years labor -- the task force report -- was released with little fanfare. We have yet to receive a copy. We got our copies through NJ Spotlight’s link to the report. It appears that no one wants to discuss the report. 
We are imploring educational leaders, legislators, and policymakers not to shelve this report. We do not want to merely be the “task force” referred to in the next task force report. 
It is not okay to just move on.
These two Task Force members, one a parent and one a teacher, have grave concerns about the report: “students were not surveyed, parents were not being heard, and teachers were not polled”; the recommendations issued by the Task Force “were made decades ago and have never been implemented”; “there was little, if any, attempt made to investigate the concerns of the key constituents: students, parents/guardians, and teachers.”

N.J.’s difficulties funding and providing necessary special education services run deep. Taxpayers spend $3.5 billion a year, far more per pupil than any other state and, indeed, special education costs often drive local district budgets. That’s partly a result of our costly (and IDEA-scofflaw habit) of placing children with disabilities in the state’s robust system of private special education schools which, by definition, are last-resort restrictive environments. (A 2007 New Jersey School Boards Association report notes that “out-of-district placements involve 10 percent of New Jersey’s special education population, but make up 40 percent of the total cost of special education,” or $1.3 billion.” See here.  ) Last year a federal district court judge ordered N.J. to take  “extraordinary measures” to address “one of the most segregated special-education settings in the country.”

But, according to Pasternak and Hennessey, the Task Force barely skated the surface of a deep well of inequity and pain. They conclude, “this  report’s recommendations are based on the opinions of 17 members, most of them administrators. The report’s focus is on funding and cutting costs -- not cost-effectiveness. It is not reflective, nor does it address the issues of the key stakeholders: New Jersey’s 220,000 special-needs students, the parents and guardians of these students, and New Jersey’s 131,000 teachers.”

Another Task Force bites the dust. Maybe a lawmaker will now propose a Task Force to study Task Forces.

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