Some Michigan Special Education History: A Lesson for All States

Michigan once had a proud heritage of believing in the educational rights of our students with disabilities.

But what has transpired over the past 39 years is not worthy of our history books or a wondrous fairy tale of children’s dreams come true. For Michigan’s 200,000 students with Individualized Education Programs (IEP), it has been a long, treacherous, and disappointing road to what we call a “Free Appropriate Pubic Education.”

One shining moment in this dark and disillusioning history took place on December 11, 2014, but this is just one victory in a sea of losses, and Michigan parents, along with local, state and federal, special education, disability and civil rights organizations, must prepare themselves for what’s to come in 2015 and ahead.

Here is the map to Michigan’s 39 years and unraveling of special education.


  • P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act passed in 1975 and was signed into law by President Gerald Ford, and now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA, 1997 and 2004).
  • Michigan Public Act 451, 1976, the Michigan Mandatory Special Education Act passed and was signed into law by Governor William G. Milliken, and creating the Michigan Administrative Rules for Special Education (“MARSE”). A law permitting children with disabilities to attend school between the ages of three to twenty-six.
  • The Headlee Amendment passed in 1978, amending the MI Constitution to require that any state mandated activity would be funded by the state. This created the infamous “Durant lawsuits” and an ongoing battle between school districts and the MI Legislature over special education funding.
  • Term Limits passed in 1992, amending the MI Constitution and removing the institutional knowledge so critical to legislators; along with a Legislature with legislators in office long enough to pass thoughtful laws.
  • In 1996 Governor John Engler purposefully created Executive Orders that stripped the State Board of Education of virtually all of its elected authority over public education. This gave 100% of non-elected power to our State Superintendent (first Arthur Ellis, then Tom Watkins and now Mike Flanagan). Special education rules have eroded under all three individuals.
  • In 2001 the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) proposed revisions to our MARSE to align them with the reauthorization of the IDEA 1997. The revised MARSE promulgated in 2002 did irreparable harm to the IEP. Former State Superintendent Tom Watkins promulgated the WORST rule in our state’s history, infamously known as R 340.1832e. This rule has allowed Michigan’s 57 Intermediate School Districts (ISD) to create 57 sets of rules. Both class size and teacher caseloads have exploded. There is now much inequity and inequality on the backs of students with disabilities, teachers and clinicians, who have had to deal with severe budget cuts. The end, to the beginning of special education in Michigan, began in earnest in 2002.
  • On May 14, 2010 the MDE unleashed its “Criteria to Determine the Existence of a Specific Learning Disability.” the Department created an arbitrary “9th percentile” that a student must have on a norm-referenced achievement test (like Woodcock-Johnson) or curriculum based assessment to even be considered for eligibility. Michigan’s special education population and especially those with learning disabilities are dropping like educational-flies.
  • In January 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that included an unprecedented 12.1 billion for IDEA funding. The MDE released a memo which resulted in giving EVERY school district the permission to shift up to 50% of this one-time Federal increase to their General Fund. Michigan’s special education programs and services have not been appropriately funded, and both student outcomes and teachers’ working conditions have suffered.
  • In March 2011, the MDE proposed a Rule to create a Cross Categorical Teacher. A Rule that would have permitted a teacher to earn four endorsements, in 30 hours, for the price of one. Nothing short of a Blue Light, bargain-basement special. The MDE eventually withdrew this proposed revision following a blast of outrage led by my guest columns, emails and calls that exposed this direct hit to the credibility of special education teachers.


More recently, the MDE’s proposed revisions to the Michigan Administrative Rules for Special Education released for public comment on February 13, 2014, proposed reducing state Rules to the federal minimum. Below is just a sample of their proposed revisions:


  • Removing accountability from special education timelines by requiring parents to sign the consent to special education programs and services prior to an IEP team meeting, following an evaluation.
  • Exiting students from special education as soon as they earned the credits for a high school  diploma;
  • Requiring a paraprofessional to have only a high school diploma;
  • Authorizing school districts to determine annually the special education staffing based upon the number of students with IEPs. An example, Speech caseloads capped by our Rules at 60 could have and would have increased. 
  •  Removing short term objectives for students taking our State’s standardized general education assessment, and leaving only “goals” that are too often not measurable.
  • Eliminating “Multidisciplinary Evaluation Teams” and replacing them with watered-down versions of so-called experts;
  • Adding a physician’s assistant to the eligibility for an Other Health Impairment, Physical Impairment, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Hearing-Vision Impairment. MI Rules have required a licensed physician to be a member of these evaluation teams. Heaven forbid the MDE had suggested a revision to permit a PhD psychologist, but no, their mission was to save money, and at the expense of necessary evaluations by “experts.”
  • Requiring a student with Autism to fail to make eye-to-eye gaze in order to qualify for special education. The Autism Society of Michigan did not send out an action alert for the first two weeks of the public comment period. Just an example of the MDE’s exemplary job of brainwashing special education administrators, teachers, Parent Advisory Committees and local special needs organizations into believing that the proposed revisions were nothing substantive, and that I was a misguided Chicken Little.


I invested almost one entire year into sounding the alarms, and stopping these proposed revisions. A parent reached out to me during the public comment period and then created a petition that we posted all over Facebook, listservs, emails, websites and Twitter. This petition drew 10,000 signatures!

In an unprecedented show of support, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Advocacy Institute, Diane Ravitch and Eclectablog, issued national action alerts on Michigan’s Rule revisions. I filed a formal complaint with the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) pursuant to my belief that the MDE’s website for the proposed Rule revisions was in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 2008.

The OCR let me know that in fact issues of noncompliance have been identified. I, along with the MDE, are waiting for their final report and corrective actions.

One year, of sleepless nights, and an engine running on fear and determination, I lived on phones, emails and texts with state legislative offices, disability stakeholders, parents, teachers, clinicians, the news media, social media and anyone who would listen, and in my quest to sound the alarm that special education was under the attack of all attacks.


My hypothesis was simple.


If Michigan eliminated our state-imposed special education rules, other states’ would fall like dominoes. I could not let that happen. Not without waging a war on the MDE and anyone working to deny children with disabilities an education, and hope for a future of independence, and access to the American Dream. Michigan had become a “national” issue. If we could stop the MDE’s proposed revisions, we could use this effort as an example to stop other states’ attacks on special education. Michigan is still a national issue, but there are other states and other children with ineffective IEPs and eroding special education programs and services waiting for our attention.

Still, thankfully and through months of effort, the Chairs of our Michigan Joint Committee for Administrative Rules (“JCAR”) held a hearing on December 11th and, in effect, shut down the Rules package and urged the MDE to withdraw them. Parents, children with special needs, and some brave and caring teachers filled two rooms at our Capitol and spilled into the halls. Senator John Pappageorge, Chair of the JCAR, said that in his fourteen years in the MI Senate he had never seen such an outpouring of support for children, and against the proposed revisions to our Rules.

Michigan’s Lt. Governor Brian Calley, the father of a child with Autism, testified against the proposed Rules. “Rules for children with disabilities are different than other Rules and must be protected,” he said. And so, the MDE’s deplorable package of proposed revisions to the Michigan Administrative Rules for Special Education were not approved. Senator Pappageorge urged MDE administrators to withdraw the package, and Lt. Governor Calley said that he looked forward to working with the Department and parents over the next year.

For one bright and shining day, a day of renewal of spirit and hope, we had prevailed and our children had won.

And what has the MDE done since December 11, 2014? They have whined like three-year olds and threatened to take action against our Lt. Governor for testifying at the JCAR hearing.

What happened to the Michigan Department of Education? What happens to people when they become highly paid and powerful administrators? Do they forget why they went into teaching? Do they forget that children are their greatest obligation and opportunity? Do they forget that public education is every child’s greatest civil right and the legs upon which our Nation and States stand upon?

I believe the answer begins with the problems caused by former Governor Engler’s Executive Orders and the transparency that has been shrouded in opaqueness and secrecy these past 19 years.

The MDE and our State Superintendent answer to no one, not even to our State Board of Education. There are no checks and balances. There is no moral compass. There is almost no communication.

MI school districts and ISDs violate our Michigan Administration Rules for Special Education (MARSE) and the IDEA, and the MDE looks the other way. Our largest ISD, the Wayne Regional Education Service Agency (RESA), preemptively implemented the proposed revision to eliminate short term objectives from students’ IEPs, back in September. The Rules never passed but the Wayne RESA did not care. They seemed to think that they could remove accountability from students’ IEPs and no parent would be the wiser.

I was alerted to this in October and blew the whistle loudly. I filed a systemic complaint and I am awaiting the MDE’s final report. Thousands of students’ IEPs are out of compliance, and yet there are few signs that the MDE or Wayne RESA are working to right these wrongs.

I will say with a mix of sadness and humor that while I fight for the rights of our State’s students with IEPs primarily as a volunteer, there are special education administrators being paid to violate the Rules! I am a self-anointed IEP sleuth and “Sheriff,” and only because the kids deserve someone to fight for their rights to an education. I do not choose to do this alone, and work every day to engage parents, teachers and disability stakeholders. I wonder every day what it will take for parents to again pick up the gauntlet and fight for State Rules and a Federal Law that is not even a half-century old.

To all who read this blog, special education is dying. The small victories come at the expense of more devastating defeats. The outcomes for students with IEPs are egregious. In Michigan, fewer than 51-% of students with IEPs earned a diploma last year. Look deeper at the diplomas earned and you will see that too many are meaningless and not worthy of the paper they are printed on. We cannot allow this educational abuse to continue. Every child matters and the majority can, and want to become productive taxpayers.

Sheer tenaciousness, perseverance and an unwillingness to admit defeat, thwarted the MDE’s proposed revisions. Can this be done in other states? The question isn’t can it be done. The answer is, it must be done. We must take on every State that proposes to destroy our children’s educational rights. We must take on each State as a Nation. We must take on the looming reauthorization of the IDEA as 50 States “united.”

The battles waged by parents of children with special needs in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s cannot be forgotten. We must carry them with us. We must use them for strength. We must find our courage and resolve, and fight for America’s “special” children as we did in Michigan. The alternative is unthinkable.

I like to believe that we all want to fight for our children and their right to a free appropriate public education. I live by Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Our lives begin to end, the day we become silent about things that matter…” and Carol Bellamy’s “You need to get up in the morning and say, “Boy, I’m going to—in my own stupid way—save the world today.”

And I say every day, “As an ‘I’ I make a difference, but as a ‘We’ we are unstoppable.”


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