Testimony before the Joint Committee on Public Schools

Proposed Special Education Changes
Marie Blistan, NJEA Secretary-Treasurer
Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Good Morning.

My name is Marie Blistan. I am a proud 30-year classroom teacher working with students in special education, and I am NJEA’s current secretary-treasurer.

Thank you Senator Rice for providing our coalition with the opportunity to speak with you regarding the Department of Education’s proposed changes to special education regulations.

In February, the Department of Education proposed changes to special education regulations based on the recommendations of Governor Christie’s Education Transformation Task Force. Unfortunately, there was only one stakeholder with special education experience on the Task Force - - an administrator from a private school - - and we were shocked to see the changes in the Code that they recommended

Released in September of 2012, the Governor’s Education Transformation Task Force found that:

  • Students with disabilities are a heterogeneous group with diverse needs.

  • The broad universe of special education regulations merit a careful review, which was beyond the scope of the Task Force.

  • The Task Force recommends that the Department convene a working group to study special education laws, regulations, and practices to identify ways to improve student achievement, protect student health and safety, and manage this education sector’s rapidly escalating costs.

Unfortunately, the Task Force ignored its own recommendations, because the Department never formed a group of special education stakeholders to study special education regulations, laws or practices. Sadly, the voice of the special education community was left out of this process.

I know the special education community well, and I know all too well that they do not take any changes to the successful special education services New Jersey provides lightly. For that reason, NJEA is proud to be one of more than a dozen special education stakeholder groups that came together to review all the proposed changes. We discussed the potential harmful impact these recommendations would have on our students, their families and educators.

Our group formed what is known as the Special Education Stakeholders Coalition and we have been busy. We:

  • Developed two White Papers addressing the regulations our coalition believed were the most harmful to our special education population and presented them to the Department of Education. They were astonished by our reaction to the regulation changes, because in their words, they believed, “the regulations were going to be much worse.”

  • Sent the White Papers to every State Board member, as well as members of the legislature.

  • Met with legislators, including Senate President Steve Sweeney.

  • Alerted concerned educators, advocates, parents and community members through various methods, including a statewide teleconference that had more than 1,300 people call in to learn about the proposed regulations.

  • Hand-delivered a letter from the coalition to Governor Christie’s office on June 3, urging him to rescind the regulations and allow the Special Education Task Force do its job.

More importantly, we diligently reached out to the very State Board members who represent New Jersey’s public school students and have a vote in the way these regulatory changes will impact the special education population. Our members wrote thousands of letters that explained their specific stories, worries and concerns. Two board members accepted invitations and visited schools to learn directly from educators what a day in the life of a special education student involves.

As a result, many State Board members began to question the Department.

Several of them assured us that they understood our concerns, and yet when it came time to vote on the proposed changes, they voted unanimously to adopt them.

We do not understand why they would vote to allow these proposed changes to go through the administrative code adoption process, without first following the recommendation of the ETTF and allow for a special education task force to study the best methods to improve special education services.

We question the rush to adopt these regulations without careful examination of their impact.

In March, Governor Christie signed S-600/A1365 into law. This legislation allows for the formation of a special education task force that would study ways to improve the way special education services are delivered to New Jersey’s students.

This task force must be put into place before any regulations are considered. But more importantly, once created, this task force will have the input of more than 17 special education stakeholders.

This task force will work to ensure that the needs of our special education students are not forgotten.

It is our belief that the state board has an obligation to represent our special education students and to make certain that their best interests are served when making a decision. However, since the Department has failed to acknowledge the legitimate concerns of all the stakeholders, we believe they will continue to promulgate the regulations as proposed.

We request that this committee urge the Governor and the Commissioner of Education to allow the special education task force do its job, before any changes are made to special education regulations.

Our students rely on us to be their voice.

Thank you for allowing us to represent our special education students today and thank you for listening to our concerns.