Hawkins: Red Tape or Red Herring? Minnesota Paperwork Push Mounts a Stealth Attack on the Rights of Children With Disabilities

One early morning last summer, I found myself awake in the dark, ruminating even as I came to consciousness on a meeting that would be held later that day. My family was due at a local community college to advocate for the right of my younger child, who is brilliant and also lives with a disability, to participate in a state program that allows high schoolers to attend college classes for free.

Corey has autism, and her school wanted to send a paraprofessional to help her make the transition from a high school’s structured setting to the independence and self-advocacy of college. The college was resisting — its disability services come under a separate body of law — so we had called on reinforcements to help us prepare: a former state Department of Education special education official on contract with our school, a lawyer, an Americans with Disabilities Act compliance consultant, and the aforementioned paraprofessional.

The fact that I knew in every cell of my being that we were right (and, at the end of the day, we were) didn’t ease the anxiety that woke me. Specifically, that decades of legal and civil rights precedents notwithstanding, many people consider the needs of kids with disabilities burdensome. Asking for anything other than what’s on offer is often greeted as asking for special treatment.

As I lay there, I felt first sheepish — all this for one kid? — and then angry. In Minnesota, where we live, there were probably two dozen publicly funded seats in one classroom in the only local charter school for high-achieving students with autism. If officialdom didn’t like my full court press, it was free to create programs to meet the needs of legions of students ironically described as “twice exceptional.”

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve watched as other parents of disabled children have compared notes — mostly on Facebook, because that’s where full-time caregivers socialize — about a set of bills being taken up by this year’s legislature. The measures are being touted as paperwork reduction, a means to helping special education teachers spend more time with their pupils and less on red tape.

To say special needs parents become attached at the hip to their kids’ in-school advocates would be the understatement of the millennium. We know they are harried and overworked and have invested in extra years of education to acquire the skills to nurture our darlings, whose challenges we know all too well.

Paperwork reduction? Heck yes.

Except that as the note-comparing wore on, it became clear that the paperwork in question would be eliminated by doing away with formal documentation of junctures where a child’s progress and future are planned for, and at which a parent can ask, with assistance, for a better plan. Indeed, my own child’s special ed teachers were horrified to hear about the proposals — and even more horrified that the paperwork they actually find redundant and burdensome isn’t under consideration.

The not-very-objective-here reporter in me could tell you stories about how policymakers on both sides of the aisle have used special education funding as a political football for years. They knowingly, and for political reasons, created the very funding crisis in which the proposed paperwork reduction might make a wee dent.

But the infuriated special ed parent in me wants you to know why this most Machiavellian chapter is particularly bruising. Simply put, it reinforces the stereotypes that investing in a child with a disability is throwing good money after bad, that when the families of those children raise their voices they are seeking special favors, and that meeting our kids’ needs is a drain on the whole system.

Equally ugly, it pits us against our kids’ teachers, upon whom we are wholly dependent. And often consider trusted partners.

Parenting a student with a disability means continually advocating for that child. And on a day-to-day basis, the person to whom one advocates is that child’s next-best advocate, the case manager or main special education teacher. Who most of us are well aware spends the day finding homework folders and soothing anxiety attacks and generally putting out the sundry brush fires that come with trying to shepherd a young person with complex needs through a system that prizes conventional learners.

Four of the six bills introduced are offensive. Senate File 749 would eliminate something called a conciliation conference, which the sponsoring lawmakers point out is not required by federal law. A conciliation conference is a meeting a Minnesota school or district must volunteer to hold within five days of a parent’s rejection of an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, the document revised once a year that spells out a student’s goals and the steps that will be taken to help the student meet those goals.


We had a conciliation conference several years ago at a former school. The district’s special education compliance officer came out and ran what turned into a series of meetings where he pointed out, over and over, that my child’s IEP had been written to call for remedies — mostly “social skills” in an isolated room — that addressed the things she did that bugged her teachers (all hallmarks of autism), not her academic potential.

You’re wrong about one of these things, the compliance officer said to me. To the teacher, he said, essentially, you should know better.

The proposal on the table at the Legislature claims that eliminating conciliation conferences will save a teacher three to seven hours. Lawmakers propose replacing the conferences with the option of mediation. Schools and districts would not have to inform parents of this option — which, provided a family learns of it through another channel, could easily drag on for months.

Also proposed for elimination: adding transition planning — the segment of the IEP that identifies a student’s post-high school aspirations and steps to be taken to assure they are as attainable as possible — to a student’s IEP at age 14, as opposed to 16, the age spelled out in federal law. This would save 6.5 hours, according to the bill’s sponsors.

To which I say: What parent of a child without a disability puts off until 11th grade considering whether the child’s education is positioning him or her for a fulfilling future? That’s years too late to consider things like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, community internships, and other experiences that both inform a young person’s goals and create the transcript to put those goals within reach.

I can’t summon the reporterly remove to get past the rationale advanced by the sponsors: “This is wholly unnecessary,” they wrote. Special education “educators have to spend more time on transition assessment and secondary transition planning while students are still in middle schools.”

And here’s the coup de gras: Also on the table are bills that would eliminate the requirement that schools report progress on short-term goals — the periodic check-in where we take stock of whether the strategies being used to support the student are working.

The rationale: “These results do not reflect on the student’s specific educational needs.” Really? Forget the two to six hours supposedly saved by eliminating progress reports. Who typed that sentence, and do they really believe what they wrote? Do I need to point out that these data points are the evidence that parents like me, forced to justify a child’s need for academic challenge, count on to bolster our advocacy?

(There are separate problems here wherein financing for special education in charter schools may be endangered, and shrinking school districts are reluctant to acknowledge “legacy costs.” But … one rabbit hole at a time.)

One of the aforementioned reporter stories: Every year, by state law, Minnesota schools are required to report the shortfall in their special ed reimbursement. Which is then divided by the number of students to calculate the amount of per-pupil state funding a school or district must divert from its general education students to make up the shortfall. They call this the cross-subsidy.

Six years ago, while I was reporting on the places where this financial pass-through was particularly awful, a lawmaker gave me a brass-tacks explanation: The cross-subsidy is where the impact of school funding cuts of a decade prior was hidden from public view. Increasing support, once the budgetary taps were reopened, for children with disabilities did not win points for elected officials of either party.

They would rather go home at the end of the legislative session and tell constituents they had voted to increase the size of the “general fund” intended for their child’s classroom. Never mind that every penny and more would immediately get hoovered up as cross-subsidy.

Advocates for people with disabilities got this but rarely pushed it publicly. The net effect, they knew, was that taxpayers who did not have a child in special ed would immediately conclude that the reason their kids’ classrooms were overstuffed and electives disappearing was the rising amount, about 20 percent on average, of their student’s funding being diverted.

And so you see, not only are my child’s needs perceived as burdensome and my desire to secure her the best chance at the life she dreams of seen as trying to finagle special treatment, my efforts will be depicted as costing another mother’s child his or her best shot. My insistence on asking for the continuation of “paperwork” requirements likely to be depicted as especially selfish.

In case you were wondering: When properly supported, my kid crushed it at the local community college. She took biology and cultural anthropology and got great grades. They’re going onto a transcript she’s working hard to round out so she’s attractive to colleges and universities that have strong marine biology programs, an aspiration she’s had for years.

Working to realize that dream should be her only current job. Figuring out how to create — and fund — the same opportunity for every child should be the work of the adults.

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