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Detroit Free Press
By Richard H. Bernstein, Guest Columnist
January 13, 2004
In the struggle over public education funding, some Michigan legislators have tried to cut resources for Intermediate School Districts. I strongly disagree. In fact, Intermediate School Districts are an essential component of our overall educational system.
Special training from an Intermediate School District can completely change a disabled child's future. For example, as I know from personal experience, a blind child must learn basic skills before entering first grade in a public school. Fortunately, ISD instructors teach them how to cross a street, get on a bus, use a cane and read Braille.
Thanks to the initial ISD training, this child has an opportunity to fully participate in society, live independently, work full-time and, of course, pay taxes.
Hundreds of thousands of Michigan citizens directly benefit from Michigan's 57 ISDs, which help local schools meet the individual needs of each child with physical or mental limitations. No elementary or secondary district could possibly handle these diverse challenges alone.
Instead, each Intermediate School District maintains a pool of specialized educators, materials, equipment and learning tools that no local district could afford to acquire on its own. For example, intermediate districts employ teachers trained to work with the blind, deaf and paraplegic. Other instructors specialize in more common learning impediments, like dyslexia or attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder. These ISD educators not only provide direct instruction, but also teach local public school teachers how to reach disabled students in their classrooms.
Thus, Intermediate School Districts are the most cost-effective way of responding to the diverse needs of children with disabilities.
Unfortunately, one of our 57 intermediate districts was rocked by financial scandal last year. The mess in the Oakland County Intermediate School District was inexcusable and widely reported. But county officials are responding and making strides toward rectifying the problems. They already dumped the disreputable bureaucrats and are reimbursing the $20 million earmarked for disabled students and their local school districts.
Despite these ongoing efforts to reinstitute fiscal accountability to the Oakland district, state legislators continue to use the prior transgressions as an excuse to undermine the entire intermediate school district service delivery system.
State Rep. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, is pushing legislation to let local districts drop out of an Intermediate School District. She characterized the ISD system as just a middleman, but could not explain how disabled students could access highly trained specialists or sophisticated learning aids under her plan.
Recently, the Michigan Legislature voted to set aside $660,000 to fund a statewide investigation of ISD practices. Gov. Jennifer Granholm wisely stopped the witch-hunt, with a line-item veto of the legislative misappropriation of scarce education funds.
Certainly, we should all be concerned about the fiscal integrity in public education. However, one ISD scandal should not undermine the value of the 57 intermediate districts that are now serving a quarter-million special education students in Michigan.
For them, "no child left behind" is more than a well-turned phrase; it is the chance at the full life that they can attain with the help of an Intermediate School District.
Let's strengthen, not dismantle, this critical element of Michigan's educational system.
Richard H. Bernstein of Birmingham is an attorney in the law offices of Samuel I. Bernstein and a member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors.
Copyright (c) 2004 Detroit Free Press
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