Under intense pressure from NAGE, lawmakers, and advocacy groups, the commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has backed down from his plans to privatize the work of NAGE members employed as hearing officers and mediators for the Bureau of Special Education Appeal (BSEA).
"The commissioner’s reversal is a huge victory for the Commonwealth, for its children and parents, for the BSEA hearing officers and mediators, and for NAGE," said Local 207 President Theresa McGoldrick. "We’re grateful for the work of the legislature on this issue and especially for the tremendous support offered by representatives Tom Sannicandro and Barbara L’Italien."
The state-employed BSEA hearing officers are experts in the area of special education and hear thousands of appeals each year on matters concerning eligibility and placement of students into individualized education programs (IEP) and special education for students with disabilities.
The commissioner, Mitchell Chester, had sought to dismantle the appeals bureau and replace the hearing officers with a system of contractors who would hear the special education disputes—a move that would have likely resulted in more bias, less expertise, and higher costs.
Commissioner Chester unveiled his privatization plan when it became clear that the employment of the hearing officers within the DESE violated certain regulations of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The violation was essentially one of structure, and Commissioner Chester could have come into compliance with the Act if he had simply transferred the hearing officers out of the DESE and into a different agency. The job duties and the hearing officers would remain the same, but their “work address” would have changed.
When, instead of transferring the hearing officers to a different agency, Commissioner Chester appeared ready to replace them with contractors, NAGE began meeting with lawmakers to urge them to file legislation to preserve the BSEA.
Representative Tom Sannicandro answered the call and filed a budget amendment. Representative Barbara L’Italien, a member of leadership and an advocate for special education issues, also fought to keep the current BSEA intact.
The amendment to preserve the BSEA passed in the House and later in the Senate. Once the amendment had passed, Commissioner Chester changed his mind and decided to halt his plans for privatization and to keep the BSEA and state-employed hearing officers and mediators.