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President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education:
Parental Choice & Parental Involvement
Coral Gables, Florida
April 9 and 10, 2002

Prepared by Lilliam Rangel-Diaz
8600 S.W. 92nd Street, Suite 204
Miami, Florida  33156
305-279-2428, Ext. 211

The President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education held its Third Meeting in Coral Gables, Florida. The Commission is responsible for collecting information and studying issues related to Federal, State and local special education programs with the goal of recommending policies for improving the educational performance of students with disabilities. The Commission will prepare and submit a report to the President outlining its findings and recommendations. 

The Commission deviated somewhat from its practice of seeking  public input for agenda items, and agenda for this particular meeting was designed by  Mr. Todd Jones, Executive Director for the Commission.  The theme of this meeting was Parental Choice and Parental Involvement in Special Education. 

I provided the Commission with the following documents as my written testimony:

1. Back to School on Civil Rights: Advancing the Federal Commitment to Leave No Child Behind, National Council on Disability, January 25, 2000 [See Note 1 below]

2. Rangel-Diaz, Lilliam:  "Ensuring Access to the Legal System for Children and Youth with Disabilities in Special Education Disputes," Winter 2000, Vol. 27, No. 1, Human Rights Journal of the American Bar Association.

3. Presentation to the Advocacy Center for Persons With Disabilities (Florida's Protection and Advocacy Agency) "Unmet Needs of Children with Disabilities and their Parents in our Present Special Education System" (which fell on deaf ears!).

4. Lawyers and Advocates for Special Education Meeting Minutes delineating the problems that children with disabilities and their parents face in Miami-Dade County with lack of access to due process, which remain unchanged.

5. Report from IDEA Congressional Hearing on February 28, 2001, House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform.

6. Two computer discs which contain a filed called "Letters - Congressional Hearing."  These letters were sent to Lilliam Rangel-Diaz via electronic mail in response to the 2/28/01 Report from IDEA Congressional Hearing.  The letters are representative of the barriers faced by parents of children with disabilities in attempt to access FAPE in the LRE for their children from virtually every state in the nation, including Puerto Rico.

7. IDEA Congressional Hearing, Testimony of Lilliam Rangel-Diaz before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Washington, D.C., March 21, 2002

The meeting consisted of four panel presentations on the first meeting day with one hour dedicated to public comments and six additional panel presentations on the second meeting day.  I was able to attend a portion of the public comments section of the first meeting day and five of the six panel presentations on the second meeting day. 

The Commission had initially dedicated one hour of the two-day meeting agenda for public comments.  However, this was extended the day of the meeting and all of those who signed up to testify (including those who did not make the original list which was limited to the first 25 persons), did have an opportunity to be included in an overflow list.  The public comment section was extended for approximately an additional hour to allow for all of those who had signed up in the morning the opportunity to offer testimony.  A reception for 100 people by invitation only followed where invited guests had an opportunity to speak informally with members of the Commission. 

The following are my own personal observations and impressions of the portions of the meeting that I attended and my own personal opinions: 

The purpose of this meeting was to highlight parental choice and private school placement in special education, including Florida's Opportunity Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities, known as the McKay Scholarship. 

It seems that many panelists who were invited to testify before the Commission, and who represented either private schools or charter schools, including parents and students, were discussing segregated models of education, with small teacher to student ratio. My impression was that the Commission was left with the wrong message that this is the only model that works. This concerns me and many other parents and advocates in Florida.

One panelist, Ms. Robin M. Wilkins, Special Education Director of the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, even suggested a change to the least restrictive environment mandate of IDEA to include the parent's choice of educating the child at home in the continuum of educational placements as a delivery model of inclusive education, not as one of the most restrictive educational placements as it is presently considered under IDEA's continuum of educational placement options. 

Pepin Academy
There was an interesting panel presentation that showcased a Florida charter school called Pepin Academy in Tampa, Florida, which is a fully accredited high school.  The school will not have more than 200 students and the panelists believed that being a small school played a significant role in the positive results that the Pepin students are experiencing, especially when compared to large public schools, where "kids are just numbers and test scores."

Dr. Barry Morris, curriculum specialist at the Pepin Academy, gave an interesting overview of the school's philosophy and teaching methods, in contrast with his experiences with the teaching methods used by public schools. He called these methods "disease-model teacher" where teachers typically engage in the business of  "diagnosing, prescribing and remediating," according to Dr. Morris. He spoke of a system that teaches students "learned helplessness," and schools and segregated classrooms where the goal is: "kids are comfortable until they die." 

Dr. Morris explained that Pepin Academy follows the "gifted model of teaching," and all the students at the Academy are "trained on multiple intelligence and on their gifts"  According to Dr. Morris, "universities are lost in a fog," and the model needs to be "I don't know how to, let's find out," rather than "I cannot."  It was reported that all students at Pepin Academy are taught following Armstrong's gifted model; that is, teaching through the child's area of strength or giftedness. It was evident that the culture of the school is one of high expectations, self-esteem and respect for their students where everyone, including students, teachers, administrators, and parents, learn together.  It was reported that Pepin Academy is student-centered and there are no discipline issues and no truancy issues.  The school also has a strong transition component.  Ms. Crisha Scolaro, panelist and parent and founder of Pepin Academy pleaded with the Commission, reminding them of the high number of teens who are incarcerated and who have learning disabilities.  Ms. Scolaro also reminded the Commissioners that a decision has to be made regarding whether the funding should go to education or to the prison systems.  She said, "help us to help them stay in high school." 

High Expectations in Neighborhood Schools?

Assistant Secretary Pasternack asked "if we were to build high expectations in neighborhood schools" could we replicate the success of Pepin Academy? In my opinion, the answer to Mr. Pasternack's question is:  YES!  However, that was not the answer that he received because the school staff firmly believes that their success is directly tied to their small numbers and that without it, they would not be able to get the same results.

Accommodations Denied

One of the panelists was Ms. Laura Whiteside, a parent of a student at Pepin Academy and an attorney who represents parents of children with disabilities in Florida. On the issue of providing accommodations for district and state testing for students with disabilities, she stated, "Florida is not following federal laws." Ms. Whiteside also said, "alternate assessment is ignored in Florida and not reported.  This lack of accountability sets these kids with disabilities for a special diploma.  Kids with disabilities don't count in the scores of the schools." 

Ms. Whiteside was referring to the situation where Florida students with disabilities are denied the accommodations in their IEPs on standardized testing.  While Florida has a school accountability plan, of school accountability, known as the "A+ Plan," where schools earned a grade based on the performance of their students on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), the scores of students with disabilities are not included on these scores. Therefore, while the FCAT is supposed to hold public schools accountable, the scores of children with disabilities are not included in this accountability measure.  

Ms. Scolaro reminded the Commission that denying kids with disabilities the accommodations in their IEPs on state tests is "discrimination."  One Commissioner stated, "it is disappointing to learn that in 2002, reasonable accommodations are not being applied to diplomas." 

It is important to note that this issue has caught attention lately in Florida and a bill was introduced to provide students with disabilities with the same accommodations as they have in their IEPs at the time of FCAT. However, this bill did not pass. 

FCAT: Task Force to Make Recommendations

The good news is that Governor Jeb Bush has signed Executive Order 2001-108 creating a Blue Ribbon Task Force to review and recommend reasonable testing accommodations for students with disabilities.

The task force will work to provide the fullest testing participation by students with disabilities and the greatest possible accommodations, without jeopardizing the validity or reliability of the FCAT.

The 11-member task force, which will include three parents of disabled students, three professional educators with experience in educating students with disabilities, three members of nonprofit organizations that advocate on behalf of individuals with disabilities, and two assessment and testing experts, will make recommendations regarding expanded accommodations for FCAT test-takers, considering the specific requirements for students to obtain a standard diploma or its equivalent, or other types of certification or diplomas.

The task force is to take into account these requirements with a view toward improving post-secondary educational opportunities for students with disabilities. The task force will also consider current practices in other states. The task force's recommendations are due to the Florida Board of Education no later than October 1, 2002. The Governor also requested that the Florida Board of Education adopt necessary rules based on the task force recommendations no later than February 1, 2003, prior to the next administration of the FCAT.

Mary Ellen Russell: Inclusion Can Transform School Culture

In my opinion, one of the most significant comments about the positive impact of children with disabilities on school culture was made by Ms. Mary Ellen Russell, Assistant Secretary for Catholic Schools Parental Rights Advocacy, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Ms. Russell said that including children with disabilities in Catholic schools transformed the whole school.  She believes the key to success is the match between a school that wants the child and parents who want the school. 

I happen to agree with Ms. Russell. It has been my experience that inclusion of children with disabilities in general education classes positively changes the culture of entire schools. This is most successful when the school wants the child and the parents want the school. 

However, it has also been my experience that many educators who were strongly opposed to including children with disabilities in general education classes have experienced a profound change in attitude after they were forced to accept children with disabilities in general education classes.  Many educators who went into inclusion reluctantly (literally kicking and screaming), have experienced the transformation of having a child with a significant disability included in general education classes and the change in school culture that comes with it.  It has been my experience that children with significant disabilities prove that they can learn and blossom in general education classes when they are provided with the supports necessary to be successful and with competent and trained staff who understand the significant benefits of inclusive education in our society.

Rabbi Ezra Levy: Expanding Parental Choice

In my opinion, one of the most radical comments was made by Rabbi Ezra Levy, who participated in a panel addressing religious schools, making policy recommendations to better serve students with disabilities in religious school settings. 

Rabbi Levy suggested that a program similar to the Florida's McKay Scholarship could be developed throughout the country. Instead of offering parental choice when the child is in first grade, as is the case with Florida's McKay Scholarship Program, parental choice for private schooling should be offered at a much younger age, as soon as the child is "diagnosed." Parents would have access to public school dollars for their choice of private school, including religious schools, immediately. He stressed that "every Jewish child should receive a Jewish education."

Michael Boswell: Accountability in Private Schools

Questions about accountability in private schools was raised several times during the hearing.  One of the most significant answers regarding accountability in private schools was provided by Mr. Michael Boswell, one of the few attorneys who represents parents of children with disabilities in Florida. Mr. Boswell stated that parents of children with disabilities are vocal and strong advocates for their children and private school accountability rests where it belongs: with the parents. 

Many others agreed with Mr. Boswell. 

I also agree with Mr. Boswell. I find it highly hypocritical, immoral and disturbing for public school administrators to raise the issue of accountability in private schools.  We all know too well that public schools have not been held accountable. Educational outcomes of children and youth with disabilities remain dismal. Yet, federal dollars have continued to flow , uninterrupted, into our public schools for the past 27 years, since the law was first passed.

In my opinion, it is because of this lack of accountability, poor enforcement of the law and the resulting denial of a free appropriate public education to so many children and youth with disabilities that parents have earned the right to be responsible for holding public and private schools accountable for educating their children. 

It has been proven that no one else is willing to do this job. I agree that schools need to be accountable to the parents and the children they serve. 

Findings of "Back to School on Civil Rights"

We must not forget that a review of 25 years of implementation and enforcement of IDEA conducted by the National Council on Disability and published in Back to School on Civil Rights in January 2000, found that:

". . . enforcement of the law is falling on the backs of parents who too often must invoke formal complaint procedures, including expensive and time-consuming litigation, to obtain the services and supports to which their children are entitled under the law . . . many parents, particularly parents with limited resources, are unable to challenge violations successfully when they occur.  Even parents with significant resources are hard-pressed to prevail over local education agencies when these agencies and/or their publicly-financed attorneys choose to be recalcitrant . . ."

Highlight: What Students Say About Special Education

In my opinion, the highlight of the Commission's hearing was the last panel presentation "What it's all about: Hearing from the Students about Special Education." The panel consisted of four youth with disabilities. As usual, they made profound comments while providing testimony about their experiences in school. 

Caitlin Whiteside, an 11th grader with a disability from a charter high school in Florida, stated "If you put children with disabilities with a teacher that thinks they are stupid, the children will also begin to believe that they are stupid."  Then she said, "children with disabilities are not disabled, they just cannot communicate to the rest of the world how smart they really are." 

Josh Kemp, a young many from Oregon, shared his traumatic experience when learned one month before his high school graduation that he did not have enough credits to graduate with a standard diploma and was provided with a special diploma. Although Mr. Kemp was denied a standard diploma at the end of his public school years, he taught himself how to read at age 3. 

He also shared experiences when school children would tease and intimidate him. The teachers watched but chose to do nothing about it.  He stated that he wanted to drop out of school but stuck it out until graduation, only to find out too late that he would not earn a standard diploma.

Low Expectations of IEP team

Josh also discussed the low expectations of the members of his IEP team, how he laughed when they recommended that he could become a janitor when he wanted was to go to college.

Mr. Kemp stated that his experiences with transition was "you either go their way or fall off the track." Transition was more difficult because even though kids have an opportunity to speak about what they want to do with their lives, they have "no one to back them up."  Mr. Kemp suggested that there be more follow-up of students with disabilities after they leave school, at least for 2 years after graduation. 

In answer to Commissioner Cheryl Takemoto's question "What would it take for students to have a real say in their education?" there was consensus among the youth panelists that self-advocacy and assertiveness were the keys.  Ms. Whiteside suggested that as soon as a child is identified as a child with a disability, there should be a requirement that they child attend all IEP meetings. After all, "it is not the parent's IEP, it is the child's IEP," said Ms. Whiteside. 

Some of the Commissioners asked the panelists thought-provoking questions. Unfortunately, some of these questions were not answered. 

In my opinion, Commissioner Takemoto asked one of the most important questions that was not answered: are I.Q. tests necessary to provide children with disabilities with an education. 

The answer to this question, in my opinion and in the opinion of others in attendance, is a  big NO!

It is My Opinion . . .

After much thought about the issues raised at the Commission's meeting and hearing the testimony, it is my opinion that the only way that I could ever support a state or a nationwide system of private school choice in education is if the private school choice involves ZERO TOLERANCE FOR SEGREGATION

It is my opinion that if private schools are to be involved in educating children with disabilities with public dollars, they have to provide children with disabilities with access to an inclusive education. 

We cannot tolerate public dollars being used to duplicate the segregated public education system that we have today. In this system, children with disabilities are segregated from typically developing children and are simply warehoused with the goal, as Dr. Morris said of keeping "kids comfortable until they die." 

We know that the segregated model of special education does not work. We cannot allow private schools to duplicate this model, using public dollars to perpetuate the mistakes made by public schools. 

Through the reauthorization of IDEA, we have an opportunity to educate parents, students, legislators, and public and private schools in the benefits of an inclusive education for all students and we must have ZERO TOLERANCE FOR SEGREGATION!

About Lilly Rangel-Diaz

Lilliam Rangel-Diaz also wrote Special Education: Is IDEA Being Implemented as  Congress Intended?

Lily was the Keynote Speaker at the 3rd Annual Conference of Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Houston, TX. Keynote Speech,

Lily is a member of the The National Council On Disability (NCD), an independent government agency whose statutory mandate requires the Council to "Review and evaluate all statutes and regulations pertaining to federal programs that assist people with disabilities, to assess their effectiveness in meeting the needs of these people."

In five studies on the IDEA between 1989 and 2000, NCD found that parents of children with disabilities are enthusiastic supporters of the law.

In January 2000, the National Council on Disability published Back to School on Civil Rights: Advancing the Federal Commitment to Leave No Child Behind. NCD found that all states were out of compliance with the IDEA; report discusses the high costs to children and their families caused by the failure to enforce the law.

Links to IDEA Compliance Report:

Summary of Findings & News Release by National Council on Disability. 

Table of Contents, IDEA Compliance Report ("Back to School on Civil Rights") 

Recommendations from IDEA Compliance Report ("Back to School on Civil Rights") 

Search Tips -- Find Information in IDEA Compliance Report 


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