Michigan missing the mark on special education

MICHIGAN --  According to the U.S. Department of Education, Michigan is the only state in the country that needs intervention after failing to meet federal special education requirements.

That score reflects high dropout and low graduation rates for students with disabilities. According to that report, 29 percent of kids with special needs in Michigan dropped out of high school in the 2015/2016 school year.

It’s a startling statistic and one experts in the field say needs to change, but figuring out how to change it is its own challenge.

Melissa Courtade tells FOX 17 News that the special education system in Michigan failed her 13-year-old son Brayden.

She said, “He has atypical autism, sensory processing disorder, motor apraxia, and some other varying… depression, anxiety and most of his delays are social and emotional.”

Courtade said Brayden was started on an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP back in preschool.

“It actually went really well. I had great relationships with all his therapists, with his social worker.”

In third grade, things took a turn.

“There has to be trust between families and the school, there has to be trust between families and anyone who works with your child,” she said.

Courtade said that trust was eroded when the Kenowa Hills School District, where she and her family live, recommended Brayden move to Comstock Park Schools, where a specialist would be better able to address his needs.

She said, “We want what’s best for our son, they feel like they know what’s best for our son.”

Kenowa Hills’ Special Education Director, Dan Brandt, said the move was necessary.

“If I had to employ a teacher for every single type of disability for every single type of specialized program, the cost on every single district would be astronomical.”

Getting that specialized assistance is one of the biggest challenges facing the state’s special education program.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is the father of a special needs child and has been saying special education across the state needs to do better.

“We have to better equip the support staff and the teachers with the knowledge of how to deal with behavioral challenges in those schools," he said.

Calley said it starts with changing the culture in the classroom.

“We need to have a positive behavior and intervention supports in every single classroom, in every single school across our state.”

He tells FOX 17 that special needs students aren’t graduating because they aren’t getting the support they need to learn.

“If a child has a lot of behavior management issues, chances are, they are not at a point where they’re receiving instruction in the first place,” he said.

One thing that would help provide that type of training and support is more funding.

“I absolutely agree and wholeheartedly believe that the amount of resources for special education needs to go up,” Calley said.

Brandt agreed that schools do what they can with what they have, but it’s been a problem for districts for decades.

He said, “Underfunded or un-reimbursed funding system for special ed. So if we look at that, that’s almost 30 years of unfunded, un-reimbursed cost.”

This year, Michigan was the only state in the country the Department of Education flagged as failing special education requirements. Not only are schools not going to get additional funding, more failures could mean their funding is decreased.

“It seems a little counter-intuitive to say that if we need intervention, we’re going to take away money from an already under-funded system,” Brandt said.

Another problem, according to Brandt, is the report doesn’t show where Michigan is failing.

“Randomly selected students throughout the state take that assessment and then we get a score, but we don’t get to dissect the score and find out what we did well and what we didn’t do well.”

That makes improving the system something like guesswork.

Brandt said, “It’s very difficult, one as a state to respond to that data, or two as a local district to understand how we can improve as it relates to the data from that one assessment.”

These are all problems Courtade says she’s heard before.

She said, “It’s too much money, it’s too much work, we can’t hire enough people to do it. You know, it’s all those things.”

Without the right answers, she decided to take Brayden out of public schools and is home schooling through an online program.

“We did all of 6th, 7th, and now he’s in 8th grade, and [doing] great cognitively, he does really well in all his subjects”

Lt. Gov. Calley said solutions are needed to help the thousands of kids still in the system.

“Kids with disabilities sometimes have intensive and yes, expensive needs, but every single child deserves an education," he said.

FOX 17 reached out to the Michigan Department of Education for reaction on these results. They declined an on-camera interview, but sent a statement saying in part:

“We are committed to providing a quality education for all students in Michigan, including those with special needs. The Michigan Department of Education’s work to become a top 10 education state in 10 years, is designed to better support intermediate school districts to address local school district improvements.”

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