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Special-ed reform: Paperwork exacerbates funding challenges, proponents say

“The current system our special-education teachers follow is not an easy one. It is repetitive. It is costly. It is burdensome. It is complex. And it is exhausting,” said Denise Dittrich, a spokesperson for the Minnesota School Boards Association.

New Ulm Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Bertrang
Speaking at a press conference at the State Capitol last week, from left: New Ulm Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Bertrang; state Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth; and state Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

School district leaders have long been voicing concerns over rising special-education costs. For most, it’s not a matter of whether students should be afforded these services. Rather, it’s a matter of how these expenses are covered — and who’s being held accountable, financially.

The federal government falls incredibly short of its promise to cover 40 percent of the state’s special-education expenses. The state makes a contribution as well, but not enough to alleviate districts’ need to dip into their general education funds to bridge the gaps in special-education funding that they’re on the hook to cover.

Even the routine increase in special-education funding from the state that districts have come to rely on — an amount built into the forecast, based on projected increases in the student population and increases in service costs — didn’t come through last session. That proposed $60+ million fell victim to politics. Republicans stuck it in the omnibus budget bill that then-Gov. Mark Dayton ended up vetoing. In a failed attempt to see this pocket of funding pass, he’d requested that they send it to him as part of a stand-alone budget adjustment bill.

There’s also the financial pressure many districts — especially those in the metro area — are under, by state mandate, to cover special-education services costs for students who live in their district, but choose to open-enroll in a neighboring district or charter school.

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While much of the special-education funding debate at the state Capitol will likely continue to focus on these facets of the equation, lawmakers recently threw their momentum behind another slate of special-education reforms that they hope will help save districts money: paperwork reductions.

Renewed momentum behind an old issue

It’s a piece of the special-education puzzle that has been percolating for years.

Back in the spring of 2013, state auditors released a report on special-education funding and regulations in Minnesota. They found that, of the 45 statutes they reviewed related to special education, 19 “contain at least one provision that exceeds federal requirements.” And nearly 75 percent of the 57 state rules they analyzed contained provisions that exceeded federal requirements as well.

Many of these rules and statutes are related to record keeping and protocol that special-education teachers and administrators are responsible for keeping up to date. Most of their record-keeping time is spent on writing and updating each special-education student’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP — a personalized plan that includes academic and behavior goals, along with an action plan.

It’s an important part of ensuring special-education students’ individual needs are being met in the classroom. But it’s also something that many educators and administrators say has become so cumbersome that it’s actually detracting from student-teacher time, leading to teacher burnout, and costing districts unnecessary hours of pay.

“The current system our special-education teachers follow is not an easy one. It is repetitive. It is costly. It is burdensome. It is complex. And it is exhausting,” said Denise Dittrich, a spokesperson for the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA), speaking at a bipartisan press conference held last Thursday, where lawmakers previewed a set of reforms they’ll be looking to advance this session. “More often than not, special-education teachers spend lunch hour, prep — and much of their personal time — doing paperwork.”

As the former chair of the Senate Education Policy Committee, Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, took the lead on convening hearings over this past summer and fall, to collect input on how to best go about reducing the paperwork burden on special-education teachers and administrators. Educators from the New Ulm Public Schools district came forward with a draft of six paperwork reduction proposals that MSBA then vetted with their member districts. According to New Ulm Superintendent Jeff Bertrang, teachers currently spend 30 to 60 hours per year, per student, completing unnecessary paperwork.

A bipartisan group of senators then took up these suggestions, authoring corresponding bills (for a total of seven, including two versions of one idea) that are currently in the process of being rolled out.

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“These bills are going to make a real impact,” Pratt said. “Students will get more personal time with their teachers. Teachers will get more time doing what they love. And school districts will get some relief from the costly administrative requirements.”

For some, reforms raise concerns

While the slate of reforms being introduced have bipartisan support, a number are likely to meet resistance from parents of special-education students and their affiliated advocacy groups, like the PACER Center. For instance, a bill authored by Sen. Greg Claussen, DFL-Apple Valley, (S.F. 159) seeks to scale back the amount of time special-education teachers spend writing up short-term objectives under each goal listed in a student’s individualized education plan.

Under current state law, this detailed step is required for every special-education student. Under the proposed reform, it would only apply to students who take alternative assessments.

Bertrang explained that special-education teachers often find that the short-term objectives — or action steps spelled out to accomplish each goal — aren’t working the way they’d anticipated and they need be able to make adjustments. Pulling up the entire IEP for a rewrite is a step some deem unnecessarily cumbersome, as it often involves reconvening not just the child’s educators, but their parents and other support staff as well.

“If we keep it at the goal level, we can work with parents and students to make changes to it, rather than having IEP meeting after IEP meeting,” he said.

Paula Goldberg, the PACER Center’s executive director, says lawmakers tried to eliminate the short-term objective a number of years ago, but “parents around the state were very upset” because they think this level of detail “ensures children get the education they’re entitled to.”

Speaking as a parent, Don McNeil, who serves on PACER’s board, says that for his autistic son, having short-term objectives helped ensure movement on a major goal listed in his son’s IEP: using an iPad to communicate.

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At the start of the school year, he says, the short-term objectives were built around using the iPad to type. But his teachers soon realized that pictures may be more accessible for him, so they consulted with Don and updated the short-term objectives to focus on using pictures on the iPad to help his son communicate.

Goldberg also cautions against any attempt to either remove or relax regulations around conciliation conferences, a conflict-resolution process that takes place at the district level, as a way to prevent the need for legal action. While she acknowledges this current mandate extends beyond federal requirements, she contends that having this buffer step saves the state, and districts, a lot of money.

McNeil, who works as a lawyer, agrees. He points to Wisconsin as a cautionary tale, noting they did away with conciliation conferences and had more cases go to contested hearings. “I’m a big believer in that process that helps solve issues between parents and teachers, rather than having the lawyers get involved,” he said.

There’s also a bit of disagreement over how necessary it is to alter state law in order to effectively address special-education paperwork concerns. While in support of a number of the proposed reforms, John Klaber, executive director of Minnesota Administrators for Special Education, says much of this could be resolved without having to alter or eliminate existing state laws.

“Our contention, as an organization, has historically been: It’s not particular rules or statutes, but an interpretation that the Department [of Education] chooses to take, regarding those,” he said, noting this is where the overreach, as perceived by some, comes into play.

McNeil turns the issue back on districts, which he contends often layer additional paperwork requirements on top of state requirements.

“As a parent, what I’d really like them to do is go through the current [state] regulations and find: where do they think paperwork is being required, versus where are districts requiring it, before they state changing the regulations that have worked for us in the past.”