The Wake County school system is trying to play it safe by not mandating that school staff do more than what’s required by law to serve and promote special-education students.
The school board is scheduled to give initial approval Tuesday to a revised Student Promotion and Accountability policy. The vote comes after the board’s policy committee had extensive debate about the wording involving how special-needs students are promoted.
School administrators wanted to make sure the new policy doesn’t mandate in writing that schools do more than what’s required by law for students with disabilities. It on average costs more to educate special-needs students and the fights between families and school officials over what services are appropriate can get intense.
The current promotion policy has a specific section dealing with students with disabilities:
“Students with disabilities shall participate in the same promotion standards applicable to nondisabled students to the maximum extent possible. Students identified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) may be exempted from promotion standards by the Individualized Education Program (IEP) Team if the team determines that a student does not have the ability to participate in the Standard Course of Study, even with appropriate accommodations and modifications. Students so exempted will be assessed on alternative academic achievement standards. All intervention strategies and other opportunities, benefits, and resources made available to students without disabilities must also be made available to students with disabilities, along with any special services, modifications, or accommodations determined by the IEP team.”
The new policy is pithier: “All students will be held to the same promotion standards, with appropriate support and modifications provided as required by law.”
At the Aug. 30 policy committee meeting, school board member Jim Martin said he was concerned about the tenor and vocabulary of the new wording He said the wording in the current policy is “more generous” and “kinder” to special-needs parents.
Karen Hamilton, assistant superintendent for special education services, responded that staff wants to execute the law. She said the current policy put IEP teams into the possible position of making promotion decisions. She said that’s not the correct use of the IEP teams.
Martin, chairman of the policy committee, said he was trying to read the revised policy from the perspective of a special-needs parent who feels his child may be struggling.
Marvin Connelly, chief of staff and strategic planing, said that when the policy says required by the law it covers all things, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and IEP requirements.
Martin again said he was viewing the new policy as if he was the parent of a struggling student. He said policies need to be viewed through as many eyes as possible and asked if the new policy can be communicated better to parents.
Hamilton answered that the district would be communicating what it’s required to communicate.
“What we are communicating is that we are going to enforce and deploy laws and requirements around promotion for general and adapted curriculum students,” Hamilton said. “I think if we communicate more than that, then the district will be held to the standard of more than that.”
Jonathan Blumberg, the school board’s attorney, said he understood where Martin was coming from but said that special education law is highly regulated.
Martin responded that the current policy is more parent friendly than the new one.
“I’m just trying to read through the eyes of ‘I’ve got a child who is struggling and I’m going to get a booklet of supports and modifications provided as required by law and nothing else,’” Martin said. “’Good luck and you’re on your own.’”
Other board members jumped in to warn about what could happen by putting in policy anything that’s not required by law.
School board Chairman Tom Benton aid he’s concerned about what would happen if Wake got away from what state policy and law requires. He said doing so will leave Wake open to parents asking schools never-ending questions about whether they did this or that to help their children.
“At some point there’s got to be some reason,” Benton said. “ I’m just afraid that if we’re not careful then we’ll leave principals wide open and teachers too.”
When he was a principal, Benton said he hated to do it but would tell parents they tried to do everything that was reasonably possible to help their children.
“I wish we could make that guarantee (that every child will be successful),” Benton said. “And we could make that guarantee if we could count on every child and parent also upholding their part.
“It’s a three-way street. There’s the school, the parent and the student. If even one of those three legs are not upholding their part, it’s going to fail.”
School board member Bill Fletcher added he was hesitant to deviate from Blumberg’s legal advice.
“I don’t believe there’s a single person in the schools that would contemplate doing less than that what’s required,” Fletcher said. “As a board, I don’t believe we can obligate them to do more than required by law, which is continuously reinterpreted by the federal regulators.”
Benton went even further than Fletcher, saying that “the culture of Wake County demands that we exceed the minimum standards.” Benton added “that culture is well established in all of our schools.”
“We in Wake County are expected to do more than the minimum to educate our children,” Benton said. “But if we put that in policy….”
The committee ultimately agreed to recommend that the policy go on the full board’s consent agenda. That means there’s no discussion at the board table before the vote unless a member requests it be moved to the action agenda.