Commission on Excellence in Special Education:
Choice & Parental Involvement
April 9 and 10, 2002
Prepared by Lilliam Rangel-Diaz
CENTER FOR EDUCATION ADVOCACY
8600 S.W. 92nd Street, Suite 204
Miami, Florida 33156
305-279-2428, Ext. 211
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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
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
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.
Expectations of IEP team
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 . . .
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
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.
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