Special education advocacy groups are frustrated after Alabama education officials put off their request to discuss concerns they have over outcomes for children in Alabama’s schools with state board of education members.
“We’ve been muted,” Dustin Chandler said Friday morning after learning that Gov. Kay Ivey’s promise to hear from disability advocates at the October work session had been broken.
Chandler is one of nine representatives of various advocacy groups who sent a joint letter to all board members, including Ivey, on Sept. 6 requesting time on the October work session agenda to discuss concerns about special education.
The groups, in a collective known as Disability Advocates for Alabama’s Public Schools, sent the letter after learning about controversial remarks made by board member Ella Bell, D-Montgomery.
During that June board meeting, Bell asked whether students with special needs could be removed to a separate school because their test scores drag down overall test scores in a school.
Ivey, presiding over the Sept. 14 board meeting, acknowledged the groups’ request, and said the topic of special education would be placed on the October work session agenda.
“The board will be better able to engage in this discussion, and I know members of the board are eager to hear those concerns,” Ivey said. “The October work session will be a very appropriate time to do so.”
However, instead of honoring Ivey’s promise, interim state superintendent Dr. Ed Richardson early Friday morning emailed Chandler and other group members telling them he and former state superintendent Dr. Joe Morton would meet with the group immediately prior to the board’s Oct. 12 meeting.
Chandler, who founded the Special Education Community Alliance, said he hoped to speak directly with board members during the work session about multiple issues regarding special education, including poor student outcomes, low expectations among education officials, lack of resources for schools, and lack of representation of special education advocates when big decisions are made.
He said he sees Bell’s remarks as part of a bigger problem. “I don’t think that special education is seen as important in Alabama as it should be,” he said.
Chandler is no stranger to advocacy for children with special needs. Carly’s Law, allowing the use of cannabinoid oil for research, was named for Chandler’s daughter, who suffers from a seizure disorder.
Chandler said parents don’t want to be adversarial, but they are frustrated the procedures keep changing for how they can address the board.
Chandler is referring to parents not being allowed to address the board during the Sept. 14 meeting about Bell’s remarks, and Richardson subsequently not allowing parent Corrie Merchant to talk to the board during the Sept. 27 meeting about Alabama’s federal education plan, due to federal officials on Oct. 13.
“There are concerned parents of children in Alabama’s schools, learners in our public school systems,” Chandler said, “that are wanting their voice to be heard, and have yet to be heard.”
“I’m perplexed,” Chandler said. “Why would you not be willing to hear from concerned parents?”
Throughout the day on Friday, Chandler and others continued to correspond with Richardson about the decision to not allow parents and advocates to directly address the board.
By the end of the day, Richardson ultimately adjusted the parameters of the board meeting to allow parents and advocates to address the board during the board meeting.
Alabama State Department of Education Communications Director Dr. Michael Sibley said parents and advocates will be allowed to address the board about their concerns about special education during the public hearing portion of the meeting, and will be given two minutes to do so.
The department tweeted their official procedure for addressing the board of education on Friday evening.
Procedure for Public Hearing Comments – Alabama State Board of Education https://t.co/nVcC05pMSA
— AL Dept of Education (@AlabamaDeptofEd) October 6, 2017
As to the allegations that Ivey broke her promise, spokesperson Daniel Sparkman sent this statement to AL.com:
“When the Governor originally made that announcement, which was a recommendation of the Board, the Department of Education was in transition between superintendents. This new stand alone meeting is at the recommendation of Dr. Richardson. He feels meeting with the special education community separately will provide them with an opportunity to speak directly with the State Superintendent of Education. He feels confident that they will accomplish more in this meeting than in a Board Work Session and in a forum that will allow for more time and better discussion.”
Nancy Anderson, Assistant Director of the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program (ADAP), is another of the representatives of the groups that sent the joint letter to the board asking to discuss special education at a work session.
Anderson said she plans to participate in the 8:30 a.m. meeting with Richardson and Morton, which she sees as the start of a dialogue about the big issues in special education.
As state officials’ response evolved during the day on Friday, Anderson said she appreciated Richardson’s willingness to allow parents to address the board publicly during the meeting about their concerns.
Anderson, whose main role is to advocate for services for students in special education in Alabama’s K-12 schools, said this is a good start. “Number one, parents are going to have the opportunity to speak and be advocates for their children,” she said, “and number two, they’re going to have the opportunity to speak directly to the board.”
Board member Dr. Cynthia McCarty, R-Jacksonville, said though she isn’t exactly sure what parents and advocates are going to ask for from the board, she looks forward to hearing from them. “They need a chance to be able to voice their concerns,” she said.
Even though the format has changed, Anderson sees the latest developments in a positive light.
“I see as a positive both the move to have broader discussions at the state board meeting, and Dr. Richardson’s desire to dig deep into these issues at the [8:30 a.m.] meeting he has planned,” Anderson said.
Chandler is cautiously optimistic, but still doesn’t understand why getting an audience with the board has been so hard. “It seems simple,” he said, “and for some reason, it has been very difficult.”
Disability Advocates for Alabama’s Public Schools’ letter to Gov. Kay Ivey, state board of education – Sept… by Trisha Powell Crain on Scribd