Parents, Advocates Concerned with Proposed Changes to Special Education

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Some big changes could soon be coming to Michigan's special education program, prompting parents and advocates of special needs children to raise concerns.

The Michigan Department of Education held two public hearings Monday afternoon, in Detroit and Lansing.

Edith Gibson, a mother of a seven-year-old special needs daughter attended hoping to get answers to some of her questions, but she left more frustrated, MDE only sent representatives to take notes while individuals spoke during the hearings.

"Seeing it even here on paper right now it's still not giving me a sense if we are moving in the right direction with these changes," she said.

"We need to make sure special education is not diminished, that it improves and takes us to the next level."

All of the speakers relayed their own frustrations with the proposed changes, arguing they give too much authority to districts when it comes to staffing for special education students.

"The rule changes are extreme and will fundamentally change the way we educate our children," said one speaker.

MDE asserts it actually gives less flexibility to ISD's by adding more criteria, according to Vanessa Keesler, deputy supt. for education services with the MDE.

Meanwhile, other speakers said the changes would detrimentally affect how special-ed students were evaluated, which might reduce the parent's involvement in developing the child's independent education plan.

"We must be certain we don't support language that may threaten the quality of special education," said another speaker.

Claims the language of the proposed changes were too ambiguous was also common concern among speakers.

"Any time you make a change of this scale in the rules--and these are fairly major changes--you're going to have confusion," said Mark McWilliams with Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service.

"The real test is going to be when the rules are in effect and you've got the thousands of providers and hundreds of school districts trying to figure out what they're going to do."

But many of the worries stem from misinformation, according to Keesler.

She said the majority of the changes are for technical reasons, like cleaning up redundant language, something the department is doing to better align with federal law.

"If there are places that we need to add clarity, where this isn't just confusion, we will make changes as necessary," Keesler said.

The department has received more than 1,000 comments from concerned parents. The review process wraps up Thursday with a goal to start implementing the changes by next school year.

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