Future Reflections                                                                                      Summer/Fall, 2002

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Rhode Island Department of Education: Cutting or Gutting Services to Blind Children?

This is the question uppermost in the minds of over 150 families of blind and visually impaired children in Rhode Island. And so far no one is coming forward with any answers.

Many states across our nation (Rhode Island among them) are struggling with revenue shortfalls and other budget problems. A weakened economy has compelled several state governors to order across-the-board cuts in state government spending. In such circumstances it isn’t uncommon for services to blind children to take a proportional hit. In some states this means budget cuts to the state-funded schools for the blind. In a few states (such as New Jersey) children’s services provided by state-funded commissions for the blind suffer cutbacks as well.

None of this is pleasant, but neither is it unexpected, nor, providing that the programs had reasonable funding in the first place, is it grossly unfair. This is not to say that parents and blind advocates should take such cuts meekly—only that cycles of fat times and lean times are normal, and all must work together to minimize the impact of the lean times. But making cuts in a program is one thing; gutting it is another. A trimmed rose bush can grow back; a gutted fish is a goner.

Rhode Island does not have a state school for the blind or a commission for the blind that is charged with the responsibility for the education of children who are blind, but it does have a statewide program for children with visual impairments—the Vision Services Program (VSP). The VSP, in existence since the mid to late ’60s, is financially administered through the Rhode Island Department of Education at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf. The program has provided direct educational itinerant teaching services to blind and visually impaired children (not to mention the provision of specialized books, equipment, etc.) to all but six of the state’s thirty-eight school districts. Beginning in 2000, the program also provided orientation and mobility services. In addition to these direct services, VSP has funded summer programs for eligible blind and visually impaired children statewide, continuing education training for specialized professionals, and other special programs for the entire state.

Never a completely independent department with its own budget and dedicated administration, the VSP program office is currently located on the campus of the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, and, as of September of 2001, it is administered by the superintendent of the Rhode Island School for the Deaf. Despite these limitations there has been much to commend the Rhode Island Vision Services Program since its inception.

This is especially to the state’s credit since the Vision Services Program started from almost nothing at all. Prior to the passage of Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act (which later became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA), Rhode Island’s education plan for blind children was simple: pay out-of-state tuition and send the kids to the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts. At the peak of the program, the Rhode Island Blind Beneficiary Fund budgeted about $1.5 million for this purpose.

The transition from an out-of-state residential-education plan to a state program which provides supports for blind children to remain in their local public schools has been a long one, with some troubling implications for funding for services to blind children. As Rhode Island children moved out of the Perkins School for the Blind (or other out-of-state residential programs); the money formerly budgeted for that tuition disappeared into other programs within the Department of Education. More and more of Rhode Island’s blind children were remaining in the state to be educated, but proportionally less and less funding was allocated to the Vision Services Program, which provided specialized services to these children.

By 1999 those with a special interest in the education of blind children were becoming alarmed at the rapid bleeding away of resources. No systematic assessment of the needs and cost of services to blind children seemed to be in place. In 1999 concerned professionals in the VSP program went before the state legislature to ask that the $77,000 freed up that year by two children exiting the out-of-state tuition program be returned to the VSP budget and that a full-time position be added to the program. The efforts were partially successful for that year, but it was only a temporary fix.

In the fall of 2001 the budget axe was poised again for the most staggering cut yet. But this time a new factor was in the picture. Parents of blind children, led by Elizabeth Frampton and Paul Loberti, mobilized. Unwilling to sit by silently while essential service after essential service was stripped away, parents organized into the Rhode Island Parents of Blind and Visually Impaired Children (RIPBVI) so that they could collectively advocate to keep the VSP program and funding for that program intact. They wrote letters, made phone calls, dashed off e-mails, buttonholed state legislators, and finally got the ear of one newspaper reporter.

The following article, which appeared in the Providence Journal-Bulletin, picks up the story at this point. Following the newspaper article are copies of letters by Elizabeth Frampton and Paul Loberti, which bring the saga up to date as of August 2002. We begin with the report from the Providence Journal-Bulletin:

A Young Girl
is the One to Listen to

by Bob Kerr

Reprinted from the Providence
Journal-Bulletin (Providence, RI) Sunday,
July 07, 2002.

Aria Loberti
Aria Loberti

Aria Mia Loberti is a charming, articulate soon-to-be fourth grader with a musical name and a deep appreciation for the people who help her to be all she can be. Sitting with her parents in a restaurant at the Providence Marriott, holding the latest book she is reading, she explains that these people, at her school in Johnston, are important people, and they make her life better.

She suffers from an eye disorder that lets her see in dim indoor light but leaves her blind in the bright out-of-doors. She seems lucky, in a way, because she has parents who insist that she get the things she needs to be just another very bright girl in elementary school. And she lives in Johnston, where school officials have been very understanding and very helpful. But she is part of a small, seldom heard constituency in Rhode Island that now realizes it has to speak up for itself—and it is having no easy time getting simple answers to simple questions.

“We want to be part of the solution,” says Paul Loberti, Aria Mia’s father. “The only real advocacy we have is the vision educators themselves. They’re the only ones who testified on our behalf.”

What happened to Loberti, his wife, Audrey Loberti, their daughter, and other families with children who are blind or visually impaired got little if any notice in the recent debate over cuts in the Rhode Island state budget. There are perhaps 150 children in the state who are blind or suffer from impaired vision and require special assistance at school. They are not a large group, and, until now, they have not been organized. And they have not been heard.

But they have been hit hard, and some of their parents wonder why they are finding it so difficult to convince state officials that, with the right kind of assistance, a child who can’t see can often do darned near everything else.

“You come away with the feeling that these kids are considered a disposable part of the population,” says Kathleen Williams, whose 3-year-old son is visually impaired. “People seem to think that ‘blind’ means kids can’t learn.”

Williams met last week with the Lobertis and other members of Rhode Island Parents of Blind and Visually Impaired Children—the group they’ve formed to push for the services their children need in order to have the same kind of education that other children have. They have all received a rude wake-up call. They have learned that things they’d thought were in place and would always be in place are not.

The warning signs first appeared last October, when some of the parents were called to a meeting at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf to learn about cuts in the budget for the education of their children.

They started telephoning Peter McWalters, the state’s commissioner of education. Paul Loberti says there were 26 calls—maybe more—expressing the parents’ concerns. They finally had a meeting, but came away without any sense of support. State education officials, say the parents, put the blame for the cuts on the governor’s office. The parents don’t really care who made the cuts. They are just amazed at how hostile their reception has been when they have made what they consider a reasonable appeal on behalf of children who can’t see.

“The problem is that the people who are making the decisions are the least equipped to do it,” says Elizabeth Frampton, the president of the parents’ group. They say they weren’t even able to get the exact figures on how much was being cut from the budget for the education of blind and visually impaired children. They had to do the math themselves and came up with the startling and disturbing fact that the budget had gone from $469,000 to $279,000. That’s small potatoes amid the millions and millions of dollars involved in the state-budget battle. But for the blind children and their families it probably means the end of summer camps and training in Braille and life skills.

The parents want independence for their children—the ability to work and compete. Right now they’re not sure what the state wants for the children. There are federal guidelines for what schools should provide for blind and visually impaired students; the parents believe those guidelines should be followed, but they aren’t really sure that they will be. As Paul Loberti points out, they all want to be part of the solution, but they feel they are being shut out.

They did appear before the House Finance Committee to make their case, and the Rhode Island House of Representatives did approve a resolution creating a commission to develop a comprehensive education system for these students. It is, perhaps, a beginning.

Personally, I’d recommend some meetings with Aria Mia Loberti. Set up meetings for her with the governor, the commissioner of education, the leaders of the legislature. Let her tell them what these educational services mean to a very smart kid who sees no limits on what she can do. They’d understand. They really would.

Editor’s Note: If only it were that easy! Shortly after the publication of this article, Elizabeth Frampton and Paul Loberti, on behalf of the Rhode Island Parents of Blind and Visually Impaired Children (RIPBVIC), sent a letter to the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education, Peter McWalters, reviewing specific concerns and asking cogent questions. Copies of the letter along with a short update memo from Paul Loberti were circulated to members of the RIPBVIC. (The letter and memo are reprinted below.) That was in July.

As of September, parents were still waiting. Waiting to hear if any of the budget would be restored, waiting for answers from the Commissioner, and waiting to hear about appointments to the commission established by the Rhode Island General Assembly to study the problem.

One final observation: Although the immediate educational situation for many of Rhode Island’s blind children is bleak, the parents I have interviewed from Rhode Island—Paul Loberti and Elizabeth Frampton—are determined to stay the course. They have displayed a remarkable combination of patience, courtesy, determination, good will, and tenacity. The final chapter on services to blind children in Rhode Island hasn’t been written yet. You can count on it!

Here now, without further comment, are reprints of the letter to Commissioner McWalters and the July update memo from Paul Loberti:

Rhode Island Parents
of
Blind and Visually Impaired Children
July 15, 2002

Dear Commissioner McWalters:

We are writing to you today to ask to be part of the solution to deliver effective, necessary services for blind and visually impaired children in Rhode Island.

That said, we are confused by the tensions between the Department of Education and advocates for blind and visually impaired children. While we cannot compromise our principles, we do recognize that to become part of the solution of current problems, we must all put aside our differences and move ahead in the best interest of serving our children. We are confident that you would agree with this approach.

As a result of: 1) the recent extreme state budget cuts to the Department of Education’s vision program, 2) the subsequent June 2002 termination of contracted employees to provide vision services to children in Rhode Island, 3) the elimination of line items in the vision budget pertaining to supplies and equipment for blind and visually impaired children, 4) the lack of resources of the present state vision workforce to meet the needs of blind and visually impaired children in Rhode Island, and 5) the fact that there is no dedicated plan of which we are aware to work with local towns and cities effectively to allow them to realize what has transpired, as well as to address the implications of the aforementioned situation—as a result of these things—we seek an amicable solution that we can be a part of.

We realize that as a group of concerned parents we have been assertive in our requests to you and your staff. We believe, however, that we have done this professionally and courteously. As a result of our deep concern and belief that the vision education program may be nearing extinction in the state of Rhode Island, again we exert our responsibility as parents and ask that you kindly respond to this letter by answering the following questions:

1) What efforts have been made to notify local towns and cities about the crisis associated with the termination of education services for blind and visually impaired children in Rhode Island?

2) What is the Department of Education’s formal stance on coordinating these services for our children? For example, should another entity in state government be responsible for the implementation, coordination, and evaluation of services?

3) Have federal grantors been notified of the documented interruption of services associated with this population—many under the umbrella of IDEA, 504, and Title IX?

4) Due to the budget cuts, how can the state adequately meet the legal requirements associated with state laws and regulations to provide an appropriate, free education for this population?

5) At present we have identified approximately 20 children with needs that cannot be met in the current financial crisis. Our question is, if these 20 children are sent to Perkins [School for the Blind] at a cost estimated at $130,000 to $250,000 per year/per student, where will the funds come from, and will this affect the current opinion of state leaders about our ability to provide adequate services for these children in-state?

We sincerely hope that you will respond to our inquiries in a timely manner. Many of the questions above have been the source of great debate and concern among the parents in our network. We would greatly appreciate your kind and considerate attention to this matter, because many blind and visually impaired children are counting on you. Please send your response to: Rhode Island Parents of Blind and Visually Impaired Children, Old Wrentham Road,Cumberland, Rhode Island.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth Frampton, President, RIPBVIC

Paul G. Loberti, Vice President, RIPBVIC

Rhode Island Parents
of Blind and Visually Impaired Children
20 July 2002

Dear Supporter of Rhode Island Parents of 
 Blind and Visually Impaired Children:

I hope you are well. Today I am writing to keep you informed of the events that have transpired within the last two months regarding the provision of services to blind and visually impaired children in Rhode Island.

We as parents are completely and utterly shocked by the concerted destruction of state services for our children. This year we watched as the state budget for this program was essentially dismantled at the Department of Education. We continue to seek answers as to how and why this happened but quite honestly have not received any official word.

Our organization wanted you to receive a copy of the most recent letter sent to Commissioner McWalters. We sincerely hope that the appropriate individuals will rectify the problem, but at present the situation is grim. We ask that you take an active role in assisting us in resolving this crisis. Please carefully review this letter and call me at ___ or Elizabeth Framptom, President of RI Parents of Blind and Visually Impaired Children, at ___, if you have further questions.

Currently blind and visually impaired children who typically get services for the summer have been told they will no longer get these services. The fall is coming soon, and parents are uncertain whether local governments will have the time and resources to accommodate our children’s needs. Keep in mind that more than half of the vision educators were terminated as a result of the state mandate to
eliminate contract employees.

The current state-funded vision educators are at a complete loss to know how they will provide services for the children who desperately need them. In addition, line items in the current budget have been slashed, and fundamental resources to support the education of our children are no longer available.

We urge you to help us restore the necessary elements to provide services to blind and visually impaired children in our state. Thank you for your continued support of blind and visually impaired children. They need you now more than ever!

Sincerely,

Paul G. Loberti, Vice President, RIPBVIC

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