The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) requires public schools to develop an Individualized Education Program for every student with a disability who is found to meet the federal and state requirements for special education.  IDEA requires that when an Individualized Education Program team is deciding where a student will receive his or her special education services, the team must first consider placement in the general education classroom before removing the child to a special education class or program.

New Jersey has been notorious for having one of the most segregated special education settings in the country.  New Jersey ranks 1st in the nation when it comes to placing our special needs students in self-contained classrooms for the majority of the day and in public and private special education schools.  Roughly half of all special-needs students are educated outside the general education classroom and one in ten special needs students is educated in an out-of-district school.  In addition, New Jersey ranks as the 5th highest in the nation when classifying its students as disabled.

Earlier this year, federal District Court Judge Mary Little Cooper approved a settlement agreement between a coalition of disability rights advocates and attorneys, including New Jersey Protection and Advocacy, the Education Law Center, the ARC of New Jersey and Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, and the Christie administration.  The agreement brought to close the 2007 federal lawsuit, Disability Rights New Jersey et al. v. New Jersey Department of Education, et al.  The Plaintiffs argued that “children with disabilities in New Jersey schools are not being educated in the least restrictive environment, in violation of IDEA and the New Jersey Special Education Statute.”

The settlement agreement requires “needs assessments” and “corrective plans” for the 75 New Jersey school districts with the highest rates of segregation, both in K-12 programs and preschool, encompassing roughly one-quarter of the state’s school children.  These districts must “determine the impact of their policies, procedures and instructional programs on the placement of students with disabilities.”  The goal of the program is to “inform district actions and address those areas that limit the district’s ability to educate students in less restrictive settings.”  Once the data from a district is collected, the New Jersey Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs staff will meet with the school district’s staff to develop a training and assistance plan.

The Settlement Agreement can be found here.

In a town hall meeting yesterday, Governor Christie discussed a proposal to set up a school in each county that specializes in teaching children with autism.  The Governor believes that this type of structure will cut costs overall and will allow children within the entire county to attend what he called “centers for excellence” in each county, with the goal of increasing access for all children.  This system would presumably replace the current regime of each school system having its own program.

Lori Wolf, a Member of the Tax, Trusts & Estates Department of Cole Schotz, will speak at the JCC of New Jersey’s Special Needs Symposium on February 13, 2011.  This symposium is for families, educators and professionals with an interest in special needs issues and topics.  Pre-registration is required.  Please visit http://www.jccnj.org/specialneeds.html for more information.

New Jersey’s residents with special needs will benefit from the new $787 billion stimulus plan, signed by President Obama on February 17th.

New Jersey expects to receive $2.2 billion for its Medicaid program – a program that has been severely stressed as the economy has faltered. According to the Department of Health and Senior Services, Medicaid provides health care to over 1 million people in New Jersey and counting. The first $362 million slated for Medicaid will be paid to New Jersey right away. The rest of the money is expected to flow into New Jersey over the next two years.

Special education in New Jersey is also receiving help from the stimulus package – to the tune of approximately $360 million. Federal support nationwide for special education will grow by $12 billion over a two year period.

Details of how this money will be used is still forthcoming. Governor Corzine recently announced that two members of his administration, Chief of Staff Ed McBride and Comptroller Matt Boxer, will oversee the distribution of this money.