Department of Education uses Grinch’s calculator

Posted Jan. 03, 2010, at 8:07 p.m.

The Maine Department of Education is emulating the worst characteristics of the Grinch. But even the Grinch’s calculator worked better than the department’s.

For the past two weeks, the commissioner of education and her spokesperson have been telling anyone who will listen that Maine must not fight the department’s emergency changes to special education rules in order to save $5 million. These changes were opposed in a public hearing on Dec. 21 by a 2-to-1 ratio and also are opposed by the department’s federally mandated special education advisory panel.

Because these changes contradict instructions that the Legislature gave the department in three separate laws passed in 2007, 2008 and 2009, I believe the department has no legal authority to adopt them. It makes one wonder whether the department understands checks and balances as described in Maine’s Learning Results.

More important, these changes would hurt children with disabilities and the families who work to help them become productive, tax-paying adults. During this holiday season, many of us whose children have disabilities must contend with significant disruption to routine, making these joyous days especially tiring. We don’t appreciate how the department has made our holidays even harder this year.

The department has said that the $5 million savings figure conflates the special education rule changes with two other initiatives — unrelated budget reductions to child development services, or CDS, and the repeal of “Kindergarten-CDS parent choice.” Take out these two initiatives, and 40 percent of the department’s claimed savings evaporates.

Under close questioning, the department also has said that its figures conflate state and local savings. So the impact of its changes on the state budget is much less than it appears.

The department’s calculations also book no savings at all for the following controversial changes: changing the start of transition planning from age 14 to age 16, so students with disabilities might not be able to spend all of high school preparing for adult life; delaying implementation of “response-to-intervention” requirements that some schools think will save money while helping students; and the most controversial, adopting strict special education eligibility standards that contradict a ruling by the federal court of appeals whose decisions are binding in Maine.

The department claims that its eligibility language would smooth out local variations in the special education identification rate. Yet Vermont has eligibility criteria similar to what the department seeks, and which many of us doubt could withstand a court challenge.

I have done a careful comparison of Vermont’s district-to-district variability with those of five demographically similar states, including Maine. The data clearly show that Vermont’s variability is not any lower than the variability in these other states — including Maine. The data thus suggest that the department’s solution would not solve the problem that the department has identified.

Furthermore, the department is proposing to let every local school district adopt its own definition of “educational performance” for children with disabilities. This would increase the local variation in disability services that the department claims it wants to eliminate.

Why assert dubious emergency authority to enact language that the Legislature twice has rejected, that wouldn’t solve the problem of local variability, that would invite a lengthy and expensive court challenge, and whose adoption the department’s own documents book no savings for?

Supporters of these overly restrictive eligibility criteria claim that without such criteria, Maine’s special education identification rate will skyrocket. Yet the data show that since this argument was rejected by federal court in 2004, Maine’s special education identification rate has inched downward, not upward.

With no new data, the department also is claiming $250,000 in savings for allowing child development services to take up to almost five months (versus the federal default of 60 calendar days) to perform federally required evaluations that preschoolers with disabilities need to receive services. Yet just this summer, the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review concluded that CDS could return to its previous 60-day timeline at no cost. All it would take is good management and smart scheduling of employee time. Why is the department putting its administrative convenience ahead of the children it exists to serve?

The department also claims that it can save more than $500,000 by using a pending emergency budget bill to repeal Kindergarten-CDS parent choice. This is a popular option that the Legislature enacted unanimously in 2004 to allow parents of children with “late birthdays” to have the same choice as parents of typically developing children to choose whether to delay kindergarten entry for a year. Using data from the Department of Education, the Office of Fiscal and Program Review twice has confirmed that this option saves money for the state and for local school districts, because CDS is less expensive than K-12 education. Indeed, the fiscal analysis attached to the budget bill books no savings for the repeal! Yet the department, which has been hostile to this parent choice, repeatedly opposed this initiative and tried once before to repeal it. Why is the department now trying to use an emergency budget bill to repeal a popular cost saver?

Is the heart of the department two sizes too small? Or is the problem that its calculator doesn’t work right at all?

I don’t believe that the department is so Grinchy as to have a heart two sizes too small. But perhaps the fiscal emergency has made the department’s shoes feel too tight. But whatever the reason, its heart or its shoes, it’s hurting the families in Whoville, the Whos.

In the new year, let us work together to make smart choices based on sound fiscal analyses. The Legislature should not allow the department to use the fear associated with our dire economy to engage in executive overreach that would countermand good decisions that the Legislature already has made for tax-paying families of children with disabilities.

An associate professor of psychology at the University of Maine, Alan B. Cobo-Lewis has taught statistics at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In 2006-07 he was co-chairman of Maine’s Subcommittee to Study Early Childhood Special Education. He is treasurer of the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council and a member of the Maine Children’s Growth Council, where he serves as a parent of a child with a disability. The opinions expressed are his own.

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