CABE, Policy, Laws, and the Special Education Director
While driving my car this week and thinking about the special education leadership lessons I’m learning in the Connecticut Aspiring Leadership Academy for Special Education, a thought hit me. Years ago, my wife and I were involved with the Special Olympics. But as our family grew, we did less and less volunteering until we weren’t doing anything at all with the Special Olympics. With the special education leadership skills I have been learning, I think I want to pursue an educational leadership position on one of the Special Olympic Boards. Becoming involved again in the Special Olympics would be good for my entire family.
In class this week, I finally got a chance to meet my classmates face-to-face. It was our first summer class, and we met in person in a banquet room at the Avon Old Farms Hotel in Avon, Connecticut. It was nice to converse with my classmates and instructors in person instead of just through a computer screen.
Patrice McCarthy opened up our special education learning session. McCarthy is the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE). She knew a lot about general education and special education. And her association, CABE, is a wealth of resources for school boards of education across Connecticut.
According to their flyer, CABE is a statewide non-profit organization that advocates for public schools and school board leadership in Connecticut. CABE is dedicated to strengthening public education through advocacy, education, and service to its member boards of education. CABE believes that providing high-quality education for all Connecticut children begins with effective leadership. CABE exists solely to support their school boards, so the future of public education continues to be a bright one.
McCarthy said she and CABE try to keep school districts out of court. Her association CABE does a lot of professional development for boards of education and also builds the leadership capacity of the school superintendents and new Board members. CABE also lobbies at the national level for public education and advocates for special education funding.
Policy is critical because it guides the boards of education and set’s the vision. Some policy is mandated on the state and national level. For example, not too long ago in Connecticut, a policy passed down to all Connecticut schools said they must have a homework policy. With the right wordsmithing, often, these policies passed down will have a lot of flexibility.
The mandatory policies could say something like, “Each school district will have a homework policy.” This kind of wording allows for local control of education and much flexibility. Beware, though, that sometimes wordsmithing can work in contrast to the policy’s original intent. And that is not good.
But policy is good. Policy helps school districts avoid litigation. When there is a set discipline policy on how certain student behavior infractions must be handled, it takes a lot of pressure off the school when powerful parents begin demanding lesser consequences for their child. Without the policy, school officials could be pressured into giving lesser consequences for the children of influential parents, which could open the door to lawsuits for the inequitable treatment of students.
In addition, CABE often writes policies for its member school districts. Hence, schools know they are getting a solid, well-thought-out policy that helps them avoid the common problems that cause lawsuits.
Board by-laws help run Boards. The by-laws and policies are the laws of the school district. And the school district laws help keep school districts out of trouble. However, by-laws and policies can become outdated. They should be continuously reviewed by the superintendent or even CABE when the superintendent doesn’t have the time or expertise to do it.
It’s not easy, but by-laws and policies can be changed when they are outdated and no longer beneficial to the school district. An example given to us was that it would make no sense to still have a 1960s dress code policy in today’s schools.
It’s beneficial for Boards to have standing policy committees rather than ad hoc committees that meet only once in a while when they are deemed needed. A standing committee has many benefits of staying on top of things and coming up with creative problem-solving while the problem is still small. Furthermore, students should have a place on this standing committee because they are often very good at coming up with practical ideas that adults often overlook on how to address issues.
Policy is power, and it is vast. There isn’t room in this writing to do justice to all the ins and outs of policy. But in a nutshell, when Boards are considering policy, they need to keep some things in mind, such as what exactly the issue is before the Board. Does a new policy need to be developed, or can an older one just be revised? What data is available on the matter? Does the policy clearly and concisely communicate the Board’s intent? How does it impact student achievement, and what are the budgetary implications? Does it reflect the values of the community? Who will be responsible for implementing the policy? How will information about the policy be disseminated? And, how will the Board measure the effectiveness of the policy?
In addition, Boards should stay in their own policy lane and leave the regulations to the school administrators. To clarify the difference between policy and regulation, think of policy as the overview. Think of policy as what we want to see happen. Regulations are the nuts and bolts of how we get there, who does what, and what kind of professional development is needed for us to get there. Regulation is the day-to-day work of the schools. But sometimes, Board members inappropriately mix themselves in these daily activities, and they shouldn’t. It’s inappropriate. It’s not the role of the Board. Their role is policy.
Where it gets tricky is that regulations are often attached to the policy. And when the Board is going through the policy, they can erroneously think that the attached regulations are also part of the policy, but they’re not. And this is where Board members sometimes sway out of their lane and into the school personnel lane in the day-to-day operations. Boards need to be careful not to confuse regulations with policy. They need to be mindful of staying in their policy lane and leave the regulations to the schools.
Regarding special education laws, Connecticut often does more than the federal laws like the Individual Disability Education Act (IDEA) mandate. And this is okay. States can do more. They just can’t do less than the federal law mandates.
To mention just a few, most states have individual education plan (IEP) meetings. Connecticut has a planning and placement team (PPT) at the IEP. No other state in the country has a PPT. Also, Connecticut has added dyslexia to the eligible special education categories, which has spiraled into a new department at the State Department of Education. Connecticut also raised its age for transition services to the students’ 22nd birthday while lowing the age to begin services to 14. The burden of proof is also on Connecticut school districts during due process hearings. Forty-eight other states have the burden of proof on the plaintiff. With the burden of proof on the school districts, Connecticut has created huge expenses that Connecticut schools must pay if anything goes wrong.
Later in the day, we sat through a special education directors’ panel. Every one of the special education directors stated that the special education director job is the hardest in the school district. They said to ask any superintendent, and they will also tell you that the special education director is the most challenging job in the school district.
None of the panelists wanted the job they presently hold as the special education director. Everyone was pushed into taking the job for what was said to be just a couple of years. However, the directors were around a decade or more into the position. They said it’s still the most demanding job in the school district, but it’s now the most rewarding because they can see all the good they are doing.
Since my colleagues and I are in a program that is building future special education directors, these expert panelists had some good parting advice for us. The first one said to build a network of other special education directors in nearby schools to network with, laugh with, and get solutions from when it gets terrible. A network in the director’s job is invaluable.
Another special education director said to always take care of your special education staff. There is a considerable shortage of special educators, and it will only get worse. Furthermore, the job is very hard, and people constantly burn out. So, special education directors must always take care of their staff. They want their people to survive another year and maybe even someday thrive in the special education profession.
A third special education director said people come at you every day saying it’s an emergency. They act like the school is burning down. It’s seldom an emergency, and the special education director must remain calm and in control. If the special education director appears stressed, the staff will be stressed. This special education director also told us to turn our phones and email off after 8:00 PM. If we don’t, we’ll burn out.
The last special education director told us to make regular time to be with the principal, superintendent, and in the classrooms with teachers. This presence establishes trust, builds rapport, and makes the job more manageable.
I thought I knew a lot about the public education world. After all, I have completed 14 years of college and earned seven degrees. I have also worked as both a general education teacher and special education teacher at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, as well as taught adult education, and am an online international university professor. I am also deeply involved with the American Federation of Teachers. But this Connecticut Aspiring Leadership Academy for Special Education is opening my eyes to a whole other world in education that I don’t know much about. It’s interesting…