Attorney Robert Crabtree wrote:
Over the last couple of days we learned that Mitchell Chester, Ed.D., our new Commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education ("DESE"), chose as one of his first acts in Massachusetts to invite the federal office that oversees implementation of IDEA in the states (the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the U.S. Department of Education) to rule that our due process system - the Bureau of Special Education Appeals - violates IDEA because the hearing officers are employees of the DESE. OSEP gave him the opinion he asked for and requested that the Department submit a plan within 90 days to set out steps to remove the BSEA from its auspices. See the attached for a copy of the memo Commissioner Chester posted yesterday.
This is an issue that was addressed early in the process in Massachusetts; a bureaucratic wall was built around the agency; and for many years we have had a very workable and very professional unit of hearing officers dealing only with special education disputes. In short, the system works, and there is no practical reason to "fix it," as advocates on both sides of these cases generally agree. What the actual motivation for the new commissioner having taken this action - and so quickly in his regime - remains to be seen, but the objective is clear - he wants the BSEA out of his agency.
What the enforcement system for students' and parents' rights under IDEA will look like after this is over is far from certain. From the perspective of most practitioners at this juncture the best result would be for the current BSEA to be reconstituted as it is but in a different location, under different auspices and with sufficient funding to continue to do its work independently and professionally. There is a long and deep base of experiential and intellectual capital in the BSEA and it would be absurd and expensive to throw that away. The prospect of having to educate fresh hearing officers in each case to the complexities of special education law and substance from the ground up looms as an economic nightmare. (And, as usual, it would be those who can least afford that incremental cost who would suffer the most.) We expect that the worst of imaginable options may be what we know some other states have lived with - namely the use of independent contractors (including some who represent school districts in their practices) to hear cases.
The Commissioner has promised a collaborative process as the DESE develops a plan for the next steps over the next three months. He has also promised a "seamless" transition plan with no disruption of the resolution of special education disputes and with the needs of all parties continuing to be met. Let's hope . . .
And here is the text of the Commissioner's Memo (also supplied by Bob Crabtree):
To: Superintendents, Charter School Leaders and Special Education Directors
From: Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
Date: January 22, 2009
Subject: U.S. Department of Education Ruling on Bureau of Special Education Appeals
In October 2008, after becoming Commissioner and reviewing the operations of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, I had questions about the structure for special education hearings and mediations in Massachusetts. My questions were based on my experience and knowledge of how these procedures are conducted in other states. I wrote to the United States Department of Education (USED) and asked them to evaluate our current structure in relation to the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services of the USED responded last week and informed me that the structure for the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) is not consistent with the IDEA and its regulations.
The letter we received from the USED, dated January 15, 2009, states that the IDEA unambiguously requires that hearing officers and mediators not be employees of the state education agency. Currently, the 18 members of the BSEA staff are all employees of the state education agency, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
To be clear, the finding challenges our current structure, but does not call into question the impartiality or integrity of any of the decisions the BSEA has made. Our system for due process hearings and mediations has been and is operating in an impartial manner. No one in this Department, outside of the BSEA staff, reviews or tries to influence decisions of individual
hearing officers or mediators in ongoing cases.
The USED has given us 90 days from the date of their letter to respond with a plan that will bring us into full compliance with the IDEA. We are determined to develop a seamless transition plan for the BSEA so that the resolution of special education matters is not disrupted and the needs of students, parents, and the special education community continue to be met.
Over the next three months we will gather information about how this work is done in other states, seek input from key constituent and stakeholder groups, consider our options, and present a plan to USED. Until a final decision is made, the BSEA will continue to operate as it has, issuing valid and impartial hearing decisions and assisting parties in resolving their disputes.
If you have any questions, please contact Associate Commissioner Jeffrey Wulfson at 781-338- 6500