Florida changed rules for special education students. Why many say it’s wrong

Tampa Bay Times | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | November 4, 2021

The eyes of Florida were trained on the State Board of Education this summer as it took up how race gets taught in public school classrooms.

Gov. Ron DeSantis attended theJune 10 meeting, urging the board to ban “critical race theory.” Protesters denounced any attempt to strip the nation’s uncomfortable truths from history lessons.

The discussion went on for close to two hours, capturing headlines across the state and nation.

By the time the board got to a proposed rule impacting students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, all the energy had left the room.

Board members spent six minutes on the proposal, which defined the students’ disabilities in a way that would suddenly take away the academic helpmanyhad received for years. They spent three minutes hearing a staff presentation, two minutes listening to one public speaker, and another minute unanimously approving the measure without asking a question or making a comment.

Months later, affected students, their parents and schools continue to struggle with the change to the way the students are taught and tested, and the way the state went about implementing it.

“They have the ability to change so many lives in a good way,” said Abby Updike Skipper, a Polk County parent and special education advocate over the past two decades. “Why are they doing this? This has undone so much hard work.”

One percent solution

The rationale for the rule appeared simple enough.

Years ago, acknowledging the state’s general education standards and tests are not developmentally appropriate for certain children, Florida created alternate tests based on more accessible and understandable pieces of those standards, called “access points.”

That way, students are pushed to excel to the best of their ability, and can receive a regular diploma that helps them qualify for jobs rather than a certificate of completion. The federal government allows for such accommodations under the Every Student Succeeds Act, but sets a cap of 1 percent of the total student population to be eligible for the alternative tests.

“Florida is a little bit over that 1 percent,” senior chancellor Jacob Oliva told the board.

To get under the cap, the state Department of Education looked for ways to limit how many children can use the access points and participate in alternative testing.

That’s why the new rule contains a more specific definition of what it means to have a “most significant cognitive disability” and adds guidelines for gaining access to the services, Oliva said. The rule includes for the first time a set IQ level. It also states that children must demonstrate their inability to make progress on general education standards even with added assistance over two grading periods.

Students already in the system would have to be reevaluated to determine if they still qualify. Those new to the public schools would have to wait those two grading periods before being considered, many of them failing in classes along the way.

That includes kindergarten through second grade, which have no access points included in the new Florida BEST academic standards.

And it all would take place immediately. Department officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Pepin Academies executive director Jeff Skowronek expresses his concerns regarding a new special education rule to the State Board of Education in June 2021.
Pepin Academies executive director Jeff Skowronek expresses his concerns regarding a new special education rule to the State Board of Education in June 2021. [ The Florida Channel ]

Jeff Skowronek, executive director of Pepin Academies charter schools for students with disabilities, cautioned the State Board that the proposal would hurt schools’ ability to focus on children’s unique learning styles.

“The rules will constrain us,” Skowronek said. “They will take students off of access that we have worked diligently to ensure belong there. Then we don’t serve the students the best we can in the process.”

Reality hits

The change quickly became real to Karen Cooley and her stepson Matthew.

After spending years in a Leon County private school for children with disabilities, Matthew was in the process this summer of transferring to a public high school in order to have a broader range of services as he approached his 18th birthday.

Getting trained to survive after school is critical, Cooley said, because though Matthew is a “charmer” who hardly meets a soul he can’t get along with, “he also has his challenges.” Those include low motor skills, attention deficit and hyperactivity, autism traits and a low IQ.

“There’s not a person on the planet who thinks he should be in general education,” including himself, Cooley said. She added that she could see the “terror in his eyes” when he heard that was a possibility.

Yet because he was coming from the outside, the new rule would place him in the mainstream population for two grading periods, until it could be proven he qualifies for the added services and alternativetesting. School officials were apologetic, Cooley said, but said their hands were tied.

“It would have completely eroded his self confidence,” she said.

So the family kept him home, teaching Matthew what they could, while trying to work something out.

Meanwhile, special education teachers and advocates began hearing more concerns like these as they pored through the new requirements, trying to put into practice the rule that they had little input on as it was developed.

“They often forget about how rules will affect the most vulnerable,” said Polk County School Board member Lisa Miller, who served on the state’s special education advisory council and has a child who qualified for the special access points while in school.

Like ‘removing a wheelchair’

Miller, Skipper and others on the state advisory council said they couldn’t fathom why the state would take steps that had the potential to remove services from students with special needs. They noted they weren’t consulted as a group, instead receiving notifications that council members were being removed days after the State Board adopted the rule.

“It’s the equivalent of removing a wheelchair from a non-ambulatory student,” Skipper said of the rule.

Had the council participated in the conversation, Miller said, “we would have found the problems.”

Monica Verra-Tirado, chief of diversity, equity and inclusion for Hillsborough County Schools.
Monica Verra-Tirado, chief of diversity, equity and inclusion for Hillsborough County Schools. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Instead, they found themselves playing catch-up after the fact. They reached out to trusted special needs educators including Monica Verra-Tirado, who led the state’s special education bureau before becoming Hillsborough County’s chief of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Verra-Tirado noted that the federal government did not object to Florida’s previous rules for students with significant cognitive disabilities. The state had safeguards to ensure students participating in the alternate testing and accessibility standards were qualified, based on the teams of parents and experts making decisions for each child, she said.

Also, she added, the federal government never demanded a set IQ level as the state established. This from a state that has routinely flouted federal education mandates, while also touting parent rights over government dictates.

The new rule, she suggested, could lead to the arbitrary removal of services despite evidence showing the students’ needs. The federal 1 percent goal has no basis in science, Verra-Tirado continued, calling it a “made up number” that contradicts the law that focuses on serving individuals.

Florida’s new rule “will get us closer to 1 percent,” she said, “but at what expense?”

Lawmakers are asking questions

The issue soon landed in lawmakers’ laps.

“I’ve heard from at least seven districts on this,” said Rep. Allison Tant, a Tallahassee Democrat who also is the parent of a student with special needs.

They had concerns about older students dropping out rather than heading to general education courses where they’d likely fail, Tant said. And they worried about not providing the alternate standards to the youngest students despite demonstrated needs.

State Rep. Susan Valdes, a Tampa Democrat, started asking questions during a recent meeting of the House Education Committee, where members were discussing individualized education plans. She said she’d continue to look into the subject, with an eye toward possible legislation.

Elizabeth Skipper graduates in spring 2021 with a standard diploma from Lake Wales High School in Polk County, weeks before a new state rule could have changed her educational path.
Elizabeth Skipper graduates in spring 2021 with a standard diploma from Lake Wales High School in Polk County, weeks before a new state rule could have changed her educational path. [ Courtesy of Abby Skipper ]

Skipper, the Polk County mom, said she was glad her daughter, Elizabeth, who has cerebral palsy, completed her high school diploma using the alternate assessments just before the new rule took effect.

“If this had happened last year, I would have sued the DOE,” she said, adding that she also would have rejected any changes to her daughter’s individualized education plan while she fought.

She lamented that few people paid attention to this aspect of children’s education, while spending “too much time” on things like masks and lessons about race.

“These are our most vulnerable students,” Skipper said. “And the hits just keep coming.”

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