Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Backlash Over Special-Needs Preschool Dominates Board of Education Hearing


Tonight was the first of two hearings at the Montgomery County Board of Education about the proposed "realignment" of preschool services for children with special needs. I've written a lot about this and have already shared my testimony (see post below), so now I want to share the perspectives of some other parents. For context, this was a very well-attended hearing on all aspects of the education budget. The standing-room-only group of parents, teachers, and students carried signs and passionately advocated for a variety of worthy issues -- including the opposition to proposed cuts to school bus transportation, library staff and services, middle school magnet programs, and gifted & talented programs.


But there is no question that parent opposition to the proposed special-needs preschool program dominated the evening. In order to comment on any issue, parents had to call on the morning of Dec. 23 to sign up, and the spots filled up fast. Of 29 people who testified, an amazing 23 were there to speak out against the preschool proposal. Not a single parent, board member, or anyone else defended the proposal. (The remaining six speakers addressed the other topics I mentioned above.)

Video speaks louder than written words, so I made sure to record some of the parents' testimony. The hearing was shown on local cable TV and webcast live on the Montgomery County Public Schools website, but the video is not yet available.

The hearings really opened my eyes to the many ways the Montgomery Primary Achievement Center has lived up to its name for the past 50 years -- helping so many children achieve to their highest potential. The parents, many of whom contrasted their experience with the public school system with the specialized services of MPAC, spoke passionately about how MPAC had given them hope and improved their children's lives. From parents whose children have been in the program for several months to parents whose children graduated from the program 20 years ago, all expressed their unqualified support for the program and its staff.

Many parents (politely) lashed out at the plan and the way it's been developed without the involvement of experts and parents. It was called "foolish, "hasty," "unwise," "experimental," and "risky." Attorney and parent Lauren Poper took it one step further, suggesting that the plan (and some of the county's past actions) may actually be illegal. "Federal special education law requires MCPS to provide a continuum of alternative placements," she said, "including instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and institutions. When MCPS eliminates programs like MPAC...it eliminates settings that some of its students need to making educational progress."

She added that under federal law, "least restrictive environment" means children with disabilities "must be educated with children who are nondisabled to the extent that it is appropriate for the individual child. 'Appropriate' means that the education fits the child's special needs and allows the child to make educational progress. The law requires that this be an individual determination for each child. It is not legally permissible for MCPS to make a blanket decision to eliminate a program and predetermine the placement of all the current students in that program prior to their IEP meetings, as MCPS has done with the learning centers and CAPP at MPAC, and now plans to do with MPAC itself."

MPAC is a program Montgomery County should be proud to claim its own. For 35 years, the county has done a good job identifying and referring students who most need MPAC's intensive and specialized services. And that partnership has resulted in positive outcomes for those students and their families. The Board of Education can build on that success by opposing Dr. Weast's plan and continuing to support MPAC and other proven programs.

The Board of Education is still accepting public comments. You can send an email to boe@mcpsmd.org or call 301-279-3617.
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