Saturday, September 04, 2010

Report on the Legislative Committee Hearing in Fayetteville

Mark Martin, (R) Prairie Grove. Taking Care of Business.

The Joint Education Committee of the Arkansas Legislature had a meeting yesterday on the campus of the University of Arkansas. It was attended by thirty or so legislators. One of the big questions going into this meeting was whether or not it was just a boondoggle to give the legislators a paid trip to a razorback game, or whether they were going to get some serious work done.

While they had plenty of fun and the Razorbacks were frequently mentioned, they also got a chance to hear from members of the public from our area, me being one of them. The answer to the "there for fun or there to work" question was "both."

The meeting started with introductions, and the legislators took the opportunity to lobby for roads in their area as they did so. If they were from NWA, they pointed out how difficult it was to get around up here, and wistfully hoped that road money could follow the cars. Those from other parts of the state, especially rural ones, joshed that they wished they had roads like these. "I noticed your roads are paved up here, we are lobbying for some gravel down in my district." one of them kidded.

After introduction and approval of the minutes, they heard from Dr. Tom Smith. He is the interim dean of the college of education at the U of A. He gave a brief report on what the University was doing in the way of training teachers, especially as regards dealing with children with autism. He cited 1 out of 100 as the proportion of young children now being diagnosed with the disorder. I happen to agree with his opinion that we are "missing something" in the environment that is leading to the tragic increase in this disorder (here is what that might be).

Several legislators asked him questions about teacher training. He actually started to walk away after his report on the assumption that there would be no questions and was called back.

There was another gentleman who gave a brief talk as well, but he actually noted that he was down in Little Rock frequently and so he did not want to take too much time at the meeting. I took that to mean that there was some sensitivity to the idea that they were there to hear from local people. There were a decent number of citizens there, enough so that they had to bring more chairs in to accommodate them.

That brings us to the heavy legislative lifting from this meeting, and the controversial part.

(continued on the jump)


Blogger Mark Moore (Moderator) said...

I need to set this up with some background. This is a long set up, but for anyone who wants to understand what any legislator who wants to decentralize power, even a little bit for a very limited situation, is up against in Little Rock, it is essential reading.

The heavy lifting in this meeting was the controversy over House Bill 1665 from the prior regular session, sponsored by Representative Mark Martin of Prairie Grove. Martin is term limited, and is running for Secretary of State against Democrat Pat O'Brien, who was Barack Obama's campaign manager in Arkansas.

The bill would provide children with autism and cerebral palsy who cannot be adequately educated in an institutional environment with an effective home bound program until such time as they could effectively function in a public school environment.

Autism is not just a deficit in social skills. The magnitude of the problems vary greatly on an individual basis, but there are frequently a host of other system problems which make it unfeasible to educate them in an institutional setting.

Florescent lights, crowd noise, bell noise, and other "new" sounds that our brains automatically filter out are "White noise" that overwhelms their senses. They often have to keep flapping their hands in order to feel them when there is the slightest distraction. New people are an overwhelming challenge to them.

They have immune system deficits, food allergies, and bowel problems. Can they overcome the problems with the proper training? Many of them can to a large extent, but not by the "sink or swim" method. Throwing them into even a controlled public school environment is the equivalent of subjecting many of their systems to calculus before they know how to add and subtract.

7:50 PM, September 04, 2010  
Blogger Mark Moore (Moderator) said...

The bill HB 1665 would have the state set up an account (using existing money so it would have negligible impact on the budget according to DFA) which the parents of the child can use to contract with state certified personnel to design and implement and education plan suitable for that child, even when the instruction is delivered in the home.

The parents would not directly handle the money. They would just be allowed to have their chosen providers invoice to the state up to the amount of state funds the child would receive if they were in a special education classroom at their local resident school district. This amount is currently about $10,200.

State certified personnel would continue to revise the child's individualized education plan (IEP), and if the Arkansas Department of Education found that the parent's were not fulfilling the goals of the IEP then the bill provided a process by which the state could terminate the accounts.

It was a bill with a lot of winners and almost no losers- but some at the Arkansas Department of Education freaked out at the thought of having their cheese moved. When the bill came up in committee in regular session, Marcia Harding intimated to the committee members that the bill would put the state out of compliance with the Federal IDEA act and could threaten the state's federal funding. She also assured them that her department could already do everything the bill does. In short, she said whatever had to be said to scare those legislators out of a "do pass" recommendation.

Now here is where my full disclosure claims come in. My sister was the star witness at that committee meeting. I, with some very good help from Cheryl Rheinhart at the Bureau of Legislative Research, actually drafted the bill. Mark Martin facilitated the process.

In that initial committee meeting. my sister gave some heart-rending accounts of what children with autism have to go through in public settings. Many legislators were moved by what they heard. In fact, in this meeting Martin had my sister stand up and take a bow so that those who there the first time could remember that she gave some of the most powerful testimony they had ever heard.

Once Marcia Harding of ADE warned of all the sky-will-fall bad things that might happen if they voted for this bill, whatever their heart said they took the cautious route and voted against sending it out of committee. Martin, not to mention my sister, took issue with her over-the-top scare tactics. Martin asked for an interim study to determine what the real answers were to the disputed legal and performance issues in the hearing. The majority of legislators on the committee voted to submit the issues to an interim study.

That was about a year and a half ago. This meeting was when Martin requested that our findings on the interim study be presented. At first, the ADE were simply non-response to any of the 11 questions we submitted.

Perhaps Marcia Harding thought the issue would just go away because Martin was term-limited. He had a little more sand than she was counting on, not to mention my sister. When it comes to something like this, for her children, compared to her the Terminator is a p*$$y quitter.

7:51 PM, September 04, 2010  
Blogger Mark Moore (Moderator) said...

At any rate, Martin complained that the study questions were not being answered to little avail. After eight months we asked if they would at least be responsive to the legal questions (three of the 11).

Harding got a lawyer from the BLR to draft her view of the legal problems with the bill. The rest of the questions were concerning her claims that no program like this was needed because the state was already on top of it. Basically we asked, "so how many children with autism in this state are getting 1,000 annual hours of home based instruction from state certified personnel as this bill requires". Then we asked how many hours of home based instruction the 10 autistic children in the state who were getting the MOST such hours were getting. Stuff like that. Still no answer.

Strangely, the lawyer she got from the BLR to give her view as to why the bill did not comply with IDEA was the same one that helped us draft the bill to comply with IDEA! Cheryl Rhienhardt had told Martin before he sent the bill up that she thought it complied with IDEA, but now here was her name on a report saying that it didn't! I figure she was obligated to make the ADE's case, but were I her I would not be happy about putting my name on it- especially since Harding took a pass on answering the questions that were strictly for her department!

So my sister found a lawyer, Greg Brown of Springdale, who would research the case and testify pro-bono. He did a stellar job. He found some cases that absolutely shredded the smoke screen of excuses about how the bill would put the state out of compliance with IDEA. Without going into the details, he just crushed the contentions of the ADE point by point with cases and relevant cites from both HB1665 and federal law to make his point.

7:52 PM, September 04, 2010  
Blogger Mark Moore (Moderator) said...

After that I got up and pointed out that as decision makers, they can only be as good as the information they are given. My view was that they were not well served by the ADE on this bill. I further complained that ADE had not only given weak to bogus legal answers, but was totally non-responsive to the questions about the services they are now providing, even though they as legislators had directed them to participate in this interim study.

One of the bad things about term limits is that it shifts the institutional balance of power over to the state employees. Legislators defer to them as if it was they who were elected rather than the legislators. By the time a legislator gets their feet under them and figures out when they are blowing smoke, its time to leave.

The only way I know to counter it some is that when you finally catch some of them treating legislators like mushrooms- keeping them in the dark and feeding them you-know-what, then the legislature ought to call them to account for it. But I digress.

I can tell you by the body language and the note-taking that the committee took the issues presented seriously. I can't read minds, but I thought I saw some expressions and body language that I read as "I KNEW I should have voted for that bill."

No one from the ADE showed to contest our findings, and in the end our findings were adopted into the study. That's got to help us when we look for sponsors next session when, like the Terminator "we'll be back." Parents with disabled children are counting on us.

Now all that seemed like a fair amount of work, and I was drained afterward. The part of the meeting where Mark Martin was driving the heavy lifting was then over. The rest of the meeting was mostly driven by State Rep. Uvalde Lindsey of Fayetteville. His topics were a lot more upbeat- he had a stage set up and some folks from the Walton Arts Center presented a play about the history of our state.

I have to admit that I left for that to do a post session-break down of the proceedings with Martin, Greg Brown, and some of the parents who were there to support the bill. You have a biased observer here, but at least I was an observer. I find a lot of things in state government to complain about, but this meeting was not one of them.

7:52 PM, September 04, 2010  

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