Parents of children with special needs are worried about a new federal plan for education in Alabama, and they say they are being shut out as the Oct. 12 deadline looms.
After having been told she couldn’t speak at the board’s Sept. 14 meeting, Trussville parent Corrie Merchant was again denied the opportunity to address board members at their Sept. 27 meeting in Montgomery.
Merchant said she saw on the board’s published agenda where the plan would be discussed, and believed she was following the right procedures both times.
“Do you really think I would have driven to Montgomery twice if I had thought I couldn’t speak,” Merchant asked.
Yet, during his first meeting as interim state superintendent, Dr. Ed Richardson denied Merchant’s request, saying the state’s federal education plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) wasn’t on the meeting’s agenda, and board policy only allows the public to address the board about an agenda item.
Richardson told AL.com it was his decision, but board policy gives that discretion to the presiding officer.
Board Vice President Stephanie Bell, R-Montgomery, presided over the meeting. When board member Mary Scott Hunter, R-Huntsville, began asking for the board to allow an exception in this case, Bell didn’t allow her to finish her sentence.
Bell did not respond to a request from AL.com asking why she didn’t allow Hunter to finish her sentence.
Hunter took issue with the strict interpretation of when a person can address the board, saying on Thursday that the ESSA plan was on the agenda, just not on the meeting agenda.
“[The ESSA plan has] been in the air. It’s been on again, off again,” Hunter said.
The board planned to take up the ESSA plan during their work session immediately following the meeting, but the public is not allowed to address the board during a work session.
“In the past, my experience is that when we have people show up and there’s some confusion and they’ve come a long way, we usually let them talk,” Hunter said. “I was surprised that they didn’t let them do that.”
After the meeting, Richardson said parents could address the board about the ESSA plan at their October meeting, adding that won’t be too late, even though the board is expected to vote on the plan at that meeting.
“I don’t know of anyone that’s going to be 100 percent comfortable when we approve it on Oct. 12th,” Richardson said.
He said the board has 120 days after the plan’s submission to make changes, and he planned to “encourage everybody to continue to look at it, to refine it, till we get it closer to what we can live with.”
However, a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson contradicted Richardson. The spokesperson said Thursday afternoon that when the plan is submitted on Oct. 12, no amendments should be submitted during the 120-day review process because that would make their review process “impossible.”
States can amend their ESSA plans after approval, just as states did under No Child Left Behind, but that is a formal process, federal officials said.
Richardson has not responded to AL.com’s request for clarification.
Catey Hall, who has a child with special needs, was active in the fight to get Alabama lawmakers to pass a law requiring some employers to fund insurance policies for behavioral therapy for autism.
She, too, is frustrated by the seeming unwillingness of the state board of education to listen to the special education community’s concerns.
A resident of Birmingham, Hall drove to Montgomery on Sept. 27 to hear Merchant speak.
Hall is frustrated that the board hasn’t yet allowed Merchant to address them. “These are elected officials that are supposed to represent every learner,” she said, “and I do not feel that my special needs child has an elected representative on that board.”
Even if Merchant speaks at the next meeting, Hall said, “I doubt that any public input will be taken into consideration, and I anticipate no changes will be made to the current plan based on public comment, given that late input.”
Merchant has serious concerns that the plan, unveiled at the board’s Sept. 27 work session, doesn’t go far enough in addressing how educators will improve student outcomes for students in special education.
For example, in Alabama’s plan, even if students in a particular subgroup, like those in special education, perform poorly, the school and district could still get the highest rating, masking the poor performance of that group.
Other states do not allow the highest rating to be awarded if any of their subgroups perform below a certain level, Merchant said.
Students with disabilities, a group that encompasses a wide range of abilities, have the lowest achievement and graduation rate long-term goals in Alabama’s plan.
Pictured here are the proficiency goals in the plan. Students with disabilities are depicted by the light brown line at the bottom of the stack.
Merchant has been trying to get her concerns addressed, both through her elected board member, Jeff Newman, R-Millport, and other elected officials, including Gov. Kay Ivey.
Newman did not respond to a request for comment from AL.com.
Merchant, whose son has Down Syndrome, first became aware of ESSA through the National Down Syndrome Congress and has been following the formation of Alabama’s state plan under the ESSA since the law was passed in December 2015.
Merchant has educated herself on the important aspects of ESSA as it relates to the education of her child and others in special education.
After learning about the flexibility given to states under ESSA, she said, “I started ringing the bell in my community telling people it was important to pay attention.”
Merchant attended all of the state and national ESSA meetings she could, but when it came time to share her concerns, she couldn’t find anyone who would listen.
Though the federal education department initially issued guidance recommending states gather a diverse group of stakeholders, including parents and civil rights groups, some states have come under fire for the lack of public input into their plan.
Alabama’s ESSA Implementation Committee, created by former Gov. Robert Bentley through an Executive Order in March of 2016 and chaired by Early Child Secretary Jeana Ross, held its meetings in Montgomery from May through November of 2016.
Board of education members were allowed two appointments to the Committee. Former state superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice appointed the vice chairs, one state Senate and one state House of Representatives member were appointed to the committee, and Bentley was allowed an unlimited number of appointments.
None of the committee’s members were specifically affiliated with any disability or special education organizations.
Merchant attended one of those Montgomery meetings, she said, but the public was not asked for input. All discussion was limited to committee members.
Eight public meetings were held in high schools across Alabama between Aug. 9 and Sept. 20, 2016, to educate the public about ESSA and to solicit feedback from attendees, a spokesperson for the Alabama State Department of Education said.
More than 500 people attended the meetings, the spokesperson said, but they did not know how many attendees were educators, parents, or members of advocacy organizations, as no sign-in sheets were kept.
Merchant attended one of those public meetings and said, “Honestly, [officials] were clueless. They were fumbling. It was more of a ‘this is ESSA.’ It wasn’t a ‘tell us what you want.'”
At that point, there was no plan to look at, Merchant said, so giving input was difficult.
Merchant said she sent comments through a form on the Governor’s web site but never heard anything back.
The ESSA Committee met for a final time on Nov. 1, 2016, and approved a set of key decisions for the state board of education to consider in crafting the final plan, which was presented to the state board at its Nov. 10, 2016, work session by Sec. Ross.
After Ross’ presentation, Former state superintendent Michael Sentance told board members work on the ESSA plan should be paused until President Trump took office, as the rules were expected to change.
Though the state department provided an email address for the public to submit comments even after the ESSA Implementation Committee finished its work and Sentance pressed pause, Merchant said she wrote emails but never received a reply.
Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos did, in fact, change the rules last March for what needed to be in a state’s ESSA plan, and Merchant went to work to find out what was happening with Alabama’s plan.
She sent emails asking to be involved in developing the plan using the new guidelines, but never received any response.
No additional public meetings were held before a draft ESSA plan was unveiled at the board’s July 25 work session.
It’s unclear who authored that draft plan and when work on the plan was restarted. At the time, Sentance said the draft represented an aggregation of the work of the ESSA Implementation Committee and the work of the three subject-area committees Sentance formed in the fall of 2016 to help create a state-specific strategic plan.
The state department posted that draft on their web site and asked for input for a two-week period ending Aug. 18.
A revised ESSA plan was introduced at the Aug. 23 work session, with department staff saying it is a bare bones plan, claiming they didn’t want to put anything in the federal plan that wasn’t required.
“If it’s not asked for, it’s not part of the plan,” Assistant State Superintendent Dr. Tony Thacker told board members.
Though Merchant hasn’t been allowed to address the board, she did have a chance to share some of her concerns with Dr. Joe Morton, Executive Director of the Business Education Alliance, but doesn’t see where those concerns were addressed in the latest plan.
While Merchant, representing the concerns of the special education community, was not allowed to be heard, the six education groups who wrote to Ivey on Aug. 18 pleading for input were given a seat at the table.
Morton, a former state superintendent, said Richardson directed him to pull those six groups together immediately after Richardson was appointed interim on Sept. 14 because “there was no time to waste.”
Morton met with representatives of those groups, which included A Plus Education Partnership, the Alabama Association of School Boards, the Alabama Education Association, the Business Education Alliance, the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools, and the School Superintendents of Alabama, on Sept. 19 and 25 “for extended periods of time,” Morton told the board, and “went through the plan literally line by line, word by word to get everybody’s opinion of how we might improve this plan.”
None of those six education groups are focused on special education.
Near the end of the work session, Stephanie Bell asked Richardson to display the procedure for speaking to the board prominently on the department’s web site so those who want to do so will know exactly how it works. and Richardson agreed to do so.
That does little to ease parents’ frustration at being put off another two weeks, though. Merchant is unsure how to give any further input on the plan except directly to the board. Merchant said Bell, in a phone conversation with Merchant’s husband on Friday, offered to meet with parents outside of a board meeting.
When AL.com asked if the public could make additional comments now that the final draft of the ESSA plan has been made available, a spokesperson for the state department’s communications department said on Friday morning that no additional comment period is planned prior to the board’s Oct. 12 vote.
Alabama and South Carolina are the only states that haven’t submitted their plan to the U.S. Department of Education. Four states were granted extensions on the Sept. 18 deadline, with the stated reason being because of the recent hurricanes. Since that time, both Florida and Texas have submitted their plans.
Special education is already on the board’s October work session agenda, but for a different reason.
Disability advocates upset with remarks made by board member Ella Bell, D-Montgomery, during a previous board meeting had shown up at the Sept. 14 meeting, planning to address the board. Gov. Ivey, presiding over the meeting, told attendees that a request to address special education had been received, and instead of addressing the board that day, the Oct. 12 work session would be dedicated to discuss special education.
Hall and Merchant, along with others attending the meeting on Wednesday, plan to return to Montgomery on Oct. 12.
For her part, Hall plans to attend as many board meetings as she can, saying, “The only thing I can do going forward is to make sure the special needs community remains a strong presence at these board meetings to hold these elected officials accountable for the decisions they’re making for our children, for every child.”
“The most frustrating thing in the world is knowing what you need for your child and having those elected officials refuse to hear you.”