Thursday, September 15, 2016

About Special Education...

While everybody was freaking out about the racist textbook our State Board was considering, the Houston Chronicle dropped this Special Education policy bombshell:

In honor of Brian Rosenthal's investigative journalism, I thought a SpEd themed blog post was in order. So I wanted do a post about things every parent should know about Special Education laws, as they relate to qualifying for special ed services by way of an initial evaluation.

  • A parent is allowed to request an initial evaluation to determine if a child is has a disability (as defined in 34 CFR §300.301(b)).
  • A state agency may not develop criteria that would prevent a parent from requesting an evaluation at any time.
  • Per Child Find, a district is required to identify, locate, and evaluate all children (from birth through age 21) with disabilities, regardless of the severity of their disabilities. This obligation to identify all children who may need special education services exists even if the school is not providing special education services to the child. (20 U.S.C.1412 a(3))
  • The initial evaluation must be conducted within 60 days of receiving parental consent for the evaluation (unless state laws require that the evaluation occur in a shorter timeline). (34 CFR §300.301(c))
  • a Child with a Disability means: a child evaluated in accordance federal law as having
    • an intellectual disability, [updated per Rosa's law]
    • a hearing impairment (including deafness), 
    • a speech or language impairment, 
    • a visual impairment (including blindness), 
    • a serious emotional disturbance (referred to in this part as "emotional disturbance"),
    • an orthopedic impairment, 
    • autism, 
    • a traumatic brain injury, 
    • an other health impairment, 
    • a specific learning disability,  (specific learning disability include a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.)
    • deaf-blindness, 
    • or multiple disabilities, and 
           who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.
  • Parental consent is required for evaluation, even if the parent requested the evaluation. (34 CFR §300.300)
  • The school can decline a parent's request for evaluation. If it denies a request, it must provide notice that informs the parent of their refusal under 34 CFR §300.503(a)(2).
  • The parent can challenge the school's decision by requesting a due process hearing regarding the child’s need for an evaluation.
  • RTI may be a part of the identification process, but it may not be used to delay a parent’s request for evaluation of their child for eligibility for special education. (OSEP 1/21/11)
  • The initial evaluation shall be provided at no cost to the parent.
  • If a parent does not agree with the evaluation and would like to request an independent education evaluation, this might (or might not) be at the parent's expense. 
  • For more information, visit The Center for Parent Information and Resources or find a parent center near you.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Texas Textbooks And Other Unsolved Mysteries

Image Credit: TeamCOCO

The single most important thing to remember when you see Texas making the late night monologue circuit for it's textbooks, is that each school district and open-enrollment charter school sets its own policy for selecting instructional materials for their students. Nobody forces them to choose the ones that TEA's Commissioner adopts through the State Board's adoption process. [Although, for courses in the required curriculum, it does make a big difference to school districts if a book is on the list.]

So why does Texas have the process? Partly, so the state can help the schools know how well some textbooks are aligned to the state's curriculum standards. Partly, so they can give "experts" the chance to review some textbooks for errors and then give the publishes a chance to correct them before students get them. And perhaps, as a state, we just love the negative publicity it seems to bring.

Most recently, you've probably heard about a book Mexican American Heritage.

While none of this takes away from the egregiousness that is this book, I offer this as is a little bit of additional background on this process as it applies to this particular book:

  • "The commissioner of education recommends that the instructional materials be placed on the adopted or rejected list, based on the percentage of TEKS covered. To be eligible for adoption, instructional materials must meet at least 50% of the TEKS and 100% of the ELPS in both the student version and teacher version of the instructional materials."A Brief Overview of the Adoption Process
    • This means that being on the commissioner's list of adopted books (which is based on the SBOE's process that the commissioner recommends) does not mean the book is "awesome" or "not at all racist" or even that it is "demonstrating basic standards of human decency" -  it simply means that the book addresses 50% of the state standards for the course it is written for and 100% of the English Language Proficiency Standards.
    • The course this book was written for is the one-half credit Special Topics in Social Studies course. Which doesn't actually have that many standards (compared to other foundation courses) to address. So the bar is pretty low.
  • Just because it is adopted, doesn't mean schools have to use it.
    • Schools can use whatever textbook or open-source materials (etc.) they want to use for this course (GOSH!) as long as the materials address the TEKS (the state standards).
    • [But maybe some schools blindly buy materials from the commissioner's list because they don't know what is going on? In which case, oh em gee, we have bigger problems here, guys]
  • For what it is worth, not many kids actually take this course.
    • This isn't a required course. It would be an academic elective. In Social Studies. So. There is that.
    • David Bradley R-Beaumont thinks a course about Mexican Americans is discriminatory. (!) He wants to know, where is the course for Irish and French Americans? Schools are actually welcome to teach such a course using the same special topics course. Students in such a course could "examine the role of diverse communities (such as French-Irish men!) in the context of the selected topic." 
    • If a school did offer Mr. Bradley's course, they would obviously not use Ms. Dunbar's "textbook." (see what I did there?) But my other point is, the standards (the TEKS) for this course are that broad.
I know that background information doesn't make this book less shocking. But if you divorce the somewhat-icky book from the bureaucratic process, it might, oh I don't know?, help make next week's State Board of Education Meeting and it's outcome easier to stomach? That said, have you guys seen some of the quotes in the book? God bless Texas, you guys. Because it sure seems Texas needs it.

Support for Students Who Failed The State Assessment

A Question From a Teacher...

"My school said it is only required to provide [accelerated instruction] services to students who failed the state assessment if they are in SSI grades (i.e., fifth and eighth grade). Is that true?"

The short answer is, no.

The long answer (is still no, but) it can be found in the 2015-2016 Student Success Initiative (SSI) Manual: "In 2009, the legislature passed House Bill 3, which supports the goals of SSI by strengthening the state’s accelerated instruction provisions for students in grades 3–8. Districts (and charter school! ed note) are now required to provide accelerated instruction to all students who do not demonstrate proficiency on STAAR. Whether they are in an SSI grade (grade 5 or 8) or a non-SSI grade (grade 3, 4, 6, or 7), students who do not meet the passing standard on STAAR must receive appropriate instructional intervention so that they will be able to make the academic progress necessary to do on-grade-level work at the next grade. Accelerated instruction might require participation by the student before or after normal school hours or at times of the year outside normal school operations."

This requirement can be found in statute here: Texas Education Code Sec. 28.0211(a-1) "Each time a student fails to perform satisfactorily on an assessment instrument administered under Section 39.023(a) in the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth grade, the school district in which the student attends school shall provide to the student accelerated instruction in the applicable subject area. Accelerated instruction may require participation of the student before or after normal school hours and may include participation at times of the year outside normal school operations."

I can see how it is easy for it to get lost between all the fifth and eighth grade math and reading SSI requirements. SSI is a doozy.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Why is my public school asking for all this money?

“Don't you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies." 

It's that time of year again. The temperatures are starting to cool down. Kids everywhere are heading back to school. And that means, *some* kindergarten teachers are ready to start hoarding glue stick again!

Maybe you just bought 24 glue sticks (why God, why?), and spent over $70 on other school supplies (and that is for just one of your kids), and then you found out you need to pay even more money for this other stuff. Why is my school nickle and diming me at every turn?

When does it end?

Well, if any of the fees include items on the list below, it stops if you feel like letting your school or district know they are violating Texas Education Code Sec 11.158. (applicable to Texas public school districts and charter schools). Some of the unallowable fees include:

  • instructional materials, workbooks, laboratory supplies, or other supplies necessary for participation in any instructional course except as authorized under this code;
  • field trips required as a part of a basic education program or course;
  • any specific form of dress necessary for any required educational program or diplomas;
  • the payment of instructional costs for necessary school personnel employed in any course or educational program required for graduation;
  • library materials required to be used for any educational course or program, other than fines for lost, damaged, or overdue materials;
  • admission to any activity the student is required to attend as a prerequisite to graduation;
  • admission to or examination in any required educational course or program; or
  • lockers.
I have seen schools charge parents a fee for an app that students are required to use; this would violate the first bullet. Charging students for field trips is common, but it needs to be clear that these charges are not required and/or the field trip is not required (i.e., alternative arrangements will be made for the student). I have also seen schools who finance some teachers out of local (versus state) funds (e.g., the art teacher, music teacher, physical education teacher, foreign language teacher, reading specialists). This, unfortunately, speaks volumes about the state of education in this state. Nonetheless, this burden cannot and should not be forced on to the parents. The PTA can fundraise to pay for these employee's positions, for sure; the parents cannot be assessed a fee to cover the cost of the employee. Another example of illegal fees is when students are required to take a fee-based test like an Advanced Placement (AP) tests but also forced to pay for the test. (If your school requires students to take a test, the school must also pay any fees associated with it.) These are just a few examples of illegal fees I have heard of.

Sometimes this kind of violation can fall into the category of, "is this the ditch you want to die in?" But sometimes it is a clearly a violation that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, it usually isn't that straightforward. 

Maybe the school calls something a "fee" but on the down low it is optional for parents who can't afford it? That is what I secretly hope when I hear some of these stories. Except, I wish that schools would be more explicit about it. Conversely, some schools call something a donation, but in the breakdown of the donation, are words like "fee," which make the "donation" sound required. This kind of ambiguity puts parents who are on a tight budget in a really hard place. And maybe you aren't on a tight budget, but you know other parents are. Is it okay for you not to say something, just because you are comfortable?

Upworthy and Huffington Post like to tell us how important it is to support schools and teachers, and who can argue with that?! I mean, schools! and teachers! But the truth is, for parents on a very tight budget, these costs could mean less food on the table for kids that week, or something worse. Most parents don't want to have to start a fight or beg for help when it comes to this sort of thing.

It would just be a lot easier if (1) schools were adequately funded in the first place and/or (2) schools were following statute, rule, and district policy as written (in Texas, that includes, "A school district shall adopt reasonable procedures for waiving a deposit or fee if a student or the student's parent or guardian is unable to pay it. This policy shall be posted in a central location in each school facility, in the school policy manual, and in the student handbook.") Or, rules aside, schools could just consider that not all their students live in a state of financial excess. But I think the solution here is within reach. If there is anything my girls have learned in kindergarten, it is that there is literally nothing a couple dozen glue sticks can't solve. Or a little thoughtful consideration. One or the other.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

What is up with Absences?

At back to school night, we were told that Austin ISD was changing it's policy about excused absences. Specifically, if your child is home sick, she will need a note from her doctor in order for the absence to be excused.

At first glance, this might seem like a terrible idea. Parents will send their sick kids to school because they feel torn between an inconvenient trip to the doctor (plus a copay) and a big "U" on their kid's permanent record.

Here is the thing. AISD (and any public school district or charter school) can excuse whatever absences they feel like excusing (GOSH!). It is within their discretion pursuant to Texas Education Code §25.087(a). But they have no motivation to do this because they only collect Foundation School Funding when kids are in school or when they are out for excused absences that are outlined in TEC §25.087(b), (b-1), (b-2), (b-4), or (c) [legal speak for, everything but (a), or the absences the district can excuse]. So districts like AISD tend to be stingy with those kind of excused absences. Because why bother?

They really don't care if your kid brings in a note from a doctor or not. They just want you to think long and hard about how sick your kid really is. And they don't want your kid to stay home if he or she isn't really sick at all. Because they don't get paid if your kid doesn't come.

But what happens if your kid gets an unexcused absence? The same thing that happens if your kid gets an excused absence from the district. They both count exactly the same way towards the "90 percent rule" that is outlined in TEC §25.092. Or, as the Student Attendance and Accounting Handbook states: "Numerous absences, whether excused or unexcused, may jeopardize a student’s ability to receive credit or final grades for classes (see the TEC, §25.092, for requirements related to minimum attendance for class credit or a final grade)."

So it's not 100% accurate to say they are exactly the same. If your child has three unexcused absences in a four week period, or 10 in a 6 month period, you (the parent) will get a warning notice that the cops are coming for you soon. Like with TV cameras, and stuff. It'll be really embarrassing, okay? So don't take your kids on tour with your band, you hippies. (Also, can I please be in your band? I play a mean tambourine.) Unless you are planning something truant-like for the school year, then it's really not a big deal if you get that silly doctor's note. If your kid is sick, and you know they are sick, and you don't feel like dragging them to the doctor, AISD can just deal with it.

*Follow up: I have yet to find any documentation in school or district policy validating this policy.