The Paperwork Reduction Act for IDEA:
No one likes all the paperwork associated with special education mandates. Not the teachers, not the parents, and certainly not the legislators who have proposed the "IDEA Paperwork Reduction Act." This Bill to amend the Individual's With Disabilities Education Act during the upcoming re-authorization was introduced this October by Rep. Rick Keller (R-FL) and co-sponsors Mike Castle (R-DE) and Rep. John Boehner (R-OH). No doubt they had the recently published President's Commission on Excellence report in mind when trying to address the long-acknowledged problems associated with too much burdensome documentation.
This issue is getting a lot of press. A Policy Forum on "Special Education Paperwork" was conducted by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDE) this fall, and they published their own report explaining the problems. Lou Danielson, Director of the Research to Practice Division of the Office of Special Education Programs, emphasized the need to formally study this subject to ensure that we're not reacting solely to anecdotal whining. Ok, that's not how he put it exactly, but you know what I'm saying.
The Problem with Paper
Paperwork takes time away from teaching. Time away from teaching becomes a disincentive for teachers to stay in the field. And teachers are definitely not staying in the field. Simultaneously, data indicates that the number of students needing special education is increasing, and that means more paperwork. The cause and effect relationship here must be better understood, along with research into realistic solutions. It will undoubtedly be necessary to create a lot more paperwork to study the problem of paperwork. I'm not trying to be ironic...this just is ironic.
Those of us who will admit to our love/hate relationship with paperwork recognize that we need it, but hate the reason why we need it. At the core of this need for documentation is a lack of mutual trust between parents and professionals. Parents who feel that schools could be doing more for their kids are likely to show up to an IEP meeting with a fistful of photocopied articles on the latest research on the McGillicudy Method along with letters of support and evaluations from independent experts recommending it for their child. They want these incorporated into the IEP today. School personnel, driven by the fear of filling out all these official forms incorrectly, along with anxiety over the lack of staff proficient in the McGillicudy Method and no available training budget, often come to that same IEP meeting with an agenda focused on administrative CYA functions. Their documentation of why they don't feel the McGillicudy Method is appropriate the student must be thorough and legally copasetic. For both parties, the stakes are high.
Parents Feel the Sting from Paper Cut
So with all that boiling over up on the stove, the Paperwork Reduction Bill comes along to mop up the floor. It proposes to do this by authorizing the U.S. Secretary of Education to "identify, develop, and disseminate simplified and streamlined model documents for individualized education programs, procedural safeguard notices, and prior written notice reporting requirements." It further charges the Secretary to disseminate these new products and to provide training and technical assistance about them through local educational agencies and parent training centers. What assurances will parents have that this process will maintain parental involvement and the integrity of procedural safeguards? Especially since the Bill also stipulates that parents are to be given copies of their rights and procedural safeguards only when services are initially started, when they file a complaint, or when they ask for a copy. Currently, IDEA requires that parents be notified of their rights at initial referral for evaluation, with notice of each IEP meeting, at reevaluations, and on registration of a complaint. So how will they learn that schools are required to provide services by law if they don't even know to ask? How will parents participate as equal members of the IEP team if they don't know their rights during the time when services are being planned, i.e., before they are begun?
The Paperwork Reduction Bill also proposes to eliminate annual IEPs, favoring meetings every three years to discuss the student's performance, goals and objectives. It would eliminate the requirement for IEP progress reporting except during a "streamlined" annual IEP review meeting where it would be determined if the student was "making sufficient progress." But this Bill provides no guarantee that there will be appropriate safeguards to ensure that the school is held accountable for the student's progress. And who will determine what degree of progress is "sufficient?" IEP meetings are as long or short as they need to be; they are the single opportunity for the educational planning team to discuss the student's needs, goals and progress once a year. Which of the student's needs will be dismissed so that a more "streamlined" discussion can take place?
But wait, there's more. There would be no requirement for a general educator to be present at an IEP meeting unless the student spends the majority of time in general education. Then that teacher would only need to be present for discussions that pertained directly to general education. Please note that the meeting cannot be scheduled during a time that would require the general ed teacher's absence from instructional classtime. The school district may, at its discretion, excuse any member of the IEP team from attending the meeting. Another option for the professional is to provide their input in advance to a contact person, but not actually attend the meeting personally. Parents are permitted to object to this. However, the Bill does not indicate what obligation the school has to address a parent's objection.
Parents may present important information like an Independent Education Evaluation, but the Paperwork Reduction Bill would not require schools to consider it. Specifically, the amendment would change the language so that no requirement "that additional information be included in a child's IEP beyond what is explicitly required in this section." Read: what is "explicitly" required in a given section is information from the school.
Shredding the Evidence
Essentially, the Paperwork Reduction Bill eliminates hard-won procedural safeguards and quality controls for parents under the guise of being helpful by reducing cumbersome administrative processes. The mantle of accountability will be difficult to pin on schools without documentation designed to methodically monitor whether students with special needs are getting reasonable benefit of their free and appropriate public education.
According to the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), this amendment "tries to skirt the whole point of IEP team meetings: to get everyone into one room to discuss in-depth a child's education, goals, progress and needs." If passed, important stop-gap measures may simply cease to exist or be hard to access or apply for parents, and their role in special education minimized.
Having said that, a reasonable person would agree that something needs to be done. Some consider the proposals in the Paperwork Reduction Bill so reasonable, in fact, that they are already standard operating procedure in many school districts. For example, when does a general educator ever stay at an IEP meeting for more than the portion of it pertaining directly to services delivered in that setting? If that person was present for the entire, wholistic discussion of the student, their expertise could inform the development of grade-level goals and objectives based on access to the general curriculum. Isn't that the charge of standards-based education?
Further, how many IEP teams are already meeting without necessary representation from one professional or another, and are rendered incapable of completing their task as a result? And how much non-compliance is already commonplace when it comes to reporting IEP progress as often a typical progress reports are sent home? Disregard for this step is so rampant that it's not at all uncommon to find special educators and parents both who aren't even aware of this 1997 Re-Authorization requirement. While we're on the subject, how often do Procedural Safeguards get distributed at all the required points?
Navigating the Paper Trail
I could go on, but my point is that if any of these shortcuts worked, we'd already be experiencing the benefit of them. But we're not. The problem of paperwork certainly has not been solved by these tactics, so sanctioning them is a moot point. The truth is by current IDEA standards, these are all negligent practices and they weaken the entire educational process. Still they happen to such an extent that it's considered business as usual in many school districts. The very idea that we should legally mandate compromises like these represents an agenda that doesn't have the children's best interests at heart.
Enough about the problem. Now how about a solution?
The point of special education is to prepare our children for the real world that awaits them when they leave school. The paperwork we generate toward that end is a navigational tool...a map unique to each child pointed in that direction. This is a map that is only as good as the information and input that creates it. And a good map is essential to reaching the destination.
What we need is a navigator. Someone(s) in each school district or selected schools who works as an "IEP facilitator," - coordinating schedules, collecting information, sending prior notices, and administrating the organizational details of procedural safeguards. This person would fill the administrative functions at an IEP meeting so a teacher can just be a teacher, not a typist. An IEP facilitator could manage communication with parents, helping them understand what to expect and what is expected of them. A copy of a DRAFT IEP or assessments and evaluations would be provided by the IEP facilitator to the family a week before the meeting, so parents would have time to consider the information, get questions answered, and be ready to function as an equal member of the team when it convened.
An IEP facilitator is just one idea that could enhance a process that has been developed through diligence and deliberation. Because that process is not perfect, our efforts need to be directed towards strengthening and improving it, but not dismantling it. The Paperwork Reduction Act will inherently weaken IDEA, and create tension between schools and families. Worse of all, it doesn't even address improved academic or social outcomes for students. Clearing the path of paperwork will simply give us a better view of the failure of our educational system to meet the needs of children with special needs.
For more information on IDEA Re-Authorization and the Paperwork Reduction Act, contact preserveIDEA@dredf.org. Their website is www.dredf.org