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Spec Ed Advocates Question Report

Parents: Report Shows Lack of Understanding

In May, Judy Farabaugh watched her son, Michael R. Farabaugh Jr., walk across the stage and receive his diploma along with the rest of his class at West Springfield High School. His four years at West Springfield marked the first time Farabaugh's son, who has Down syndrome and is classified as having mild retardation, got to attend his neighborhood school.

While he never attended one of the Fairfax County Public Schools' special-education centers, he had been sent to schools beyond his neighborhood that catered to students with his "label." For example, instead of attending Newington Forest Elementary School in Springfield, Farabaugh's son was transported four miles to Rolling Valley Elementary School, also in Springfield.

"Having kids saying hi to him when we'd go to football games meant a lot to him and more for his mom and dad," Farabaugh said of their experience at West Springfield. "He did lovely at West Springfield. There were some modifications to the curriculum for him. … For many of the teachers it was the first time dealing with a student with a disability in their class, but what a difference it made to see him graduate with his class, to see him fully included in the all-night grad party."

While a supporter of inclusion, Farabaugh said she disagrees with a most of an independent consultant’s report on special education in Fairfax County. The report recommends the school system close many of its special-education centers, among other things. She says it contains inaccurate information and skews figures.

“The more I go through it, the angrier I get,” said Farabaugh, a member of the school system’s Advisory Committee for Children with Disabilities. “Some of the information is just wrong.”

THE DRAFT REPORT created by Gibson Consulting Group and issued in July has drawn criticism from special-education advocates and administrators for what they call misinformation and recommendations based on generalities.

Others, however, have embraced the report as proof the school system is wasting too much money on programs that are not working.

“The spin put on the reports by the school-system officials has been directed at the recommendation to consolidate special-education centers. However, of the consultant’s four recommendations, consolidating special-education centers generated the smallest savings, only $7 million, maximum per year,” said Judy Johnson, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, in a press release. “In contrast, the consultant found that by improving reading instruction, the number of students referred for learning disabilities services would be reduced, at a saving of up to $40 million per year — the largest savings among the consultant’s four recommendations.”

The Federation of Teachers is one of two major teacher’s associations in Fairfax County, which for the past year, its leadership has claimed the school system has been spending too much money on administrators and on remedial programs. The group claims that by adopting reading practices supported by the National Institutes of Health, namely phonics-based programs, the school system can save approximately $150 million in remediation costs each year.

The report claims the school system could save $1 million in fiscal year 2004 by reducing the number of students referred for special education testing by 10 percent; they project savings of $40 million by 2015. In addition, by reducing “nonqualified” referrals, meaning students who are referred for special education evaluation but do not qualify for services, could result in a net savings of $70,000 savings in FY ’04 and growing to $850,000 by FY '15.

By closing 15 of the county’s 21 centers (at a rate of two centers every other year) and moving those students into general-education programs, the school system could save $1.5 million in FY ’05, $2.7 million in FY '07 and up to $1.1 million every other year until the all the selected centers are closed.

A staffing formula using the state’s weighted formula that assigns values to the level of services, and eliminating instructional assistants, would save $7 million in FY ’05 and $28 million annually by FY ’08 when fully phased in, said the report.

THE teacher’s group proves that it is easy to skew the information, said Farabaugh. “I don’t think it should be used as a political tool,” Farabaugh said. “I do think some students are referred to special education too quickly. Look at the reading piece for example, have we tried everything? Probably not. Have we tried different reading techniques? Probably not. But there are so many learning styles and teaching styles. Everyone does not fit into a one-size-fit-all style.

“I do think there is more misinformation than good information,” Farabaugh said. “I do believe this will be used as a political ploy in the upcoming election and it will come back to haunt the School Board.”

Even the consultant has identified weaknesses in the report.

“We did not do a comprehensive review of the special-education department. That is not what we were asked to do,” said Greg Gibson, of Gibson Consulting Group, in July. He said that much of the information presented related to reducing referrals, including reading instruction, was based on national statistics and not the county’s own successes or failures.

The group’s use of its own figures rather than data provided by county staff, including enrollment figures quite larger than county predictions, calls into question the reports’ findings, some say.

“When I look at this data, I can’t help but think some of these suggestions were made because we have deficits,” said School Board member Kathy Smith (Sully), when the report was released. “The suggestions are general and not based on what we’re doing now.”

It’s a draft report and could be revised, but the final report isn’t likely to be much different said Allen Phillips, the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board representative to the Advisory Committee for Children with Disabilities. “I was a little surprised. I wasn’t even aware they were doing that kind of study.”

Phillips said he will look more closely at the report, but at first glance he was disappointed in its lack of specific information.

“For example, the recommendation for closing some centers; I don’t know what impact that has on the children at the centers or the schools they’ll be going to.”

Farabaugh also questions what impact the lack of instructional assistants would have on students, especially if students are integrated into already overcrowded general-education classrooms.

“We don’t want more for our own child than what anyone else wants. There are regular-education students struggling,” Farabaugh said. “Nowhere did it mention how much it costs to educate a gifted-and-talent child and we’re not even talking about ESOL [English for speakers of other languages]. Why is it always special ed?”

The report shows no understanding of what it means to have a disability, said Donald Tepper, the father of a rising eighth-grader at Robinson Secondary with attention deficit disorder. Tepper is a member of the Northern Virginia chapter of CHADD, Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, which issued a statement critical of the report’s suggestion to reduce the number of referrals. Tepper has first hand experience with the referral process because he went through it with his son.

“I think what was a red flag was the phraseology used of preventing referrals,” Tepper said. “Gibson said that general-education teachers in conjunction with special-education teachers should prevent referrals and that’s wrong.”

The group fears that urging teachers to prevent referrals could create an adversarial relationship between the parents and school-system staff. Teachers should be seen as partners with parents in the referral process, Tepper said, much the same way a teacher can detect a vision or hearing problem in a child that the parents may not have noticed.

The group also took issue with the generalization that improved teacher skills, especially in reading, would reduce the number of referrals.

“That’s crazy. Gibson suggested … many of the difficulties with special-education kids could be addressed successfully with better regular education processes, especially reading,” Tepper said. “That is so totally off base, it was astonishing.

“The research I did shows there is no connection between reading difficulties and the development of ADD. … It just shows a lack of understanding of ADD.”

While Tepper’s son does not like the process of reading a book for long periods of time, he is nonetheless a terrific reader with a “tremendous vocabulary and has received awards for book reports,” Tepper said.

His son is forgetful and disorganized as a result of his Attention Deficit Disorder, but he is not illiterate.

ALTOGETHER, the county School Board has spent $250,000 for a total of five reports from Gibson: audits in the areas of noninstructional performance measurement/annual reports; enhancement of budget document; and three aspects of special education — services delivery, staffing formulas and identification and referrals — all of which were presented in July.

The remaining two: an audit of the program evaluation review, which looks at the school system's evaluation process, and education program overlap, which identifies duplication of services, which along with the final special education report, are to be presented in September.