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Gov.-backed bill to reform special education gets mixed reaction

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 3/15/2023

Mar. 15—Public Education Secretary Arsenio Romero understands it can be difficult for families to navigate special education services for children with disabilities.

He knows because he's lived it, Romero said. His daughter, now a seventh grader, has autism, and Romero has been advocating to ensure she has access to the accommodations she needs throughout her schooling.

Despite his nearly 30 years in education — as a classroom teacher, principal, superintendent and now the top education official in the state — Romero said he, too, was flummoxed as he tried to maneuver through school and state policy to secure special education services for his daughter.

House Bill 285 is intended to ease some of that confusion, Romero said. The bill, which is among Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's priorities this legislative session, would create an Office of Special Education within the Public Education Department to provide parents, teachers and school districts a one-stop shop for all things special education by July 2024.

The aim of the office is to ensure special education services for the 50,000-plus New Mexico students who qualify for them.

"I would have loved this opportunity when my daughter was 2- or 3 years old: To be able to have one team — one place of contact — to be able to help support you with all the services, all the way through," Romero said.

However, some school administrators are hesitant about the change, noting it might diminish local control of education policy and create additional bureaucratic confusion families can't afford. They recommend additional study prior to legislative action, said Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Superintendents' Association and the New Mexico Coalition of Education Leaders.

"I've seen great intentions fall apart because we are flawed in the words we use and the constructs we use. These kids are too important to fail," Rounds said.

After some alterations by the House Education Committee, a committee substitute for HB 285 secured "do pass" recommendations from both the House Education Committee and the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee. Before the latter panel, parents of disabled children, advocates for disability rights and other education officials — including the Cabinet secretaries for the Early Childhood Education and Care, and Higher Education departments — praised the bill.

Now, the bill is waiting to be heard on the House floor, inching its way up the long list of legislation on representatives' agenda throughout this week. Lujan Grisham urged the House to act fast on the bill Wednesday — despite only a few days left in the session and approval by the Senate still facing the measure.

"The system is broken, and I stand with the thousands of New Mexico families who are counting on us to take the first critical steps toward repairing it by passing [HB 285] this session — but we are quickly running out of time. Further study is not going to solve this problem, and the time for the Legislature to act is now," the governor said in a news release.

Romero said he remains confident the bill not only has time to pass but will also do a lot of good for students needing special education services.

In addition to providing additional training and resources for teachers and districts, the bill's essential change is streamlining special education services in the state's Early Childhood Education and Care, Public Education and Higher Education departments through a single office, Romero said. This would eliminate the upheaval and delay in services that many families face as a disabled child moves from early childhood to K-12 to higher education.

But Rounds said some school district officials are concerned the new office's auditing of special education services would place additional burdens on local school districts and school boards while taking away district self-determination.

"A concern we have always is this question: How much decision-making belongs at the local level and how much belongs at the state level?" Rounds said.

Jim Jackson, a lobbyist for advocacy organization Disability Rights New Mexico, sees the additional oversight as a benefit — and a way to make sure students receive access to services, per existing legal mandates.

"Meeting the needs of kids with disabilities is a state and federal requirement already. So local control can't mean, 'Well, we decide to give some services and not some other services,' " Jackson said.

Within the Public Education Department, House Bill 285 also would make some significant bureaucratic changes, Romero said. The new office would take over the state's existing Special Education Division while removing some layers of bureaucracy between those who monitor special education and the secretary of public education.

The shift from division to office would mean two things for special education oversight in the department, Romero said.

First, it would elevate the Public Education Department's special education services to the same organizational level as the department's Indian Education Division — a change Romero said is appropriate given both Native American students and students with disabilities are identified as populations to whom the state failed to provide adequate education in the landmark Yazzie/Martinez court decision.

Second, the director of the Office of Special Education would report directly to Romero, who in turn could raise special education-related issues to the legislative branch or other parts of the executive branch.

But this bureaucratic shake-up also is cause for concern among school officials, Rounds said, who said the Office of Special Education would create confusion — rather than order — in organizational structure.

The term "office," in particular, creates confusion, Rounds said, because it's distinct from the other subgroups within the Public Education Department. While he would support elevating special education to the same level as Indian education within the agency, Rounds said the Indian Education Division at the department is just that, a "division." Creating an "office" implies difference from the rest of the department's divisions, which Rounds worries could create a lack of clarity.

While he doesn't question New Mexico's need to improve its special education system, Rounds, a former superintendent in Las Cruces, recommended an additional year of study prior to changing special education structures because "words matter and how you get there matters," he said.

But proponents of the bill don't want to wait that long.

"New Mexico families are tired of hearing what the special education system can't do for their children, not to mention the courts, which have already mandated that we act now — not tomorrow — to get special education students the resources they need," Lujan Grisham said in a statement.


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