Braille Monitor                                                    June 2008

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What Will Become of Continuing Education Programs?
Policy Notes

by Fredric K. Schroeder

Fred Schroeder

From the Editor: From time to time Dr. Fred Schroeder, former commissioner of the United States Rehabilitation Services Administration and first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind, publishes commentaries that he calls Policy Notes. In these he offers analysis and perspective on issues of concern to blind people and others with disabilities. Most recently he addressed a plan by the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) to dismantle its system of continuing education programs. At first blush this may appear to have little to do with the day-to-day provision of services by state rehabilitation agencies. Yet, as Dr. Schroeder points out, the plan to restructure RSA's continuing education programs is simply the latest in a long series of ill-conceived, poorly planned, and even more poorly executed changes in the administration of the federal agency charged with leading the nation's vocational rehabilitation program.

On January 29, 2008, RSA published a notice of proposed priority concerning its intent to restructure programs that provide continuing education and technical assistance to state vocational rehabilitation agencies. At present RSA funds twenty-one continuing education programs throughout the country. The notice of proposed priority describes a plan to consolidate the twenty-one programs into ten regional centers. As the name implies, the idea behind a notice of proposed priority is that, before a federal agency makes significant changes in the administration of its programs, the agency must describe the change it wishes to make and must offer the public an opportunity to comment before plans are finalized. Even though the notice of proposed priority invited comments through February 28, 2008, more than a week before the close of the comment period, on February 20, RSA issued an information memorandum advising the current network of continuing education programs that their funding would end this year in anticipation of the creation of the new Technical Assistance and Continuing Education Centers. So much for public comment. Before any review or analysis of public comments, indeed before the comment period even closed, RSA publicly announced its intention to move ahead with its plan. However, RSA failed to consider one small detail.

While the new Technical Assistance and Continuing Education Centers are scheduled to begin on October 1, 2008, funding for many of the current continuing education programs ends on June 30, 2008. This means that long-established programs will summarily close at the end of June, laying off staff and disrupting support to state rehabilitation agencies before the new continuing Technical Assistance and Continuing Education Centers are funded. As of early May 2008 RSA was still investigating whether it could provide funding to enable current programs to continue operating through the end of September.

A comedy of errors? Less a comedy than a tragedy. As Dr. Schroeder points out, in 2005 RSA closed its regional offices and fired nearly half of its staff, including many of its most experienced employees. Today it has neither the interest nor capacity to provide real leadership to the only federally funded program offering employment-related training and assistance to blind people and others with disabilities. RSA now seems determined to replicate its irresponsible destruction of its internal capacity by dismantling the current system of continuing education programs in America. Blind people deserve better, and the shameful conduct of the Rehabilitation Services Administration cannot be tolerated. RSA's actions must be exposed and denounced. This is precisely what Dr. Schroeder does in the following commentary:

Sunday, February 24, 2008
Volume V, No. 1

Issue: The Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) recently published a notice outlining its plan to restructure RSA's network of regional continuing education programs. What will this mean for continuing education support for state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies and community rehabilitation programs (CRP)?

Response: On January 29, 2008, the Rehabilitation Services Administration published a notice of proposed priority (NPP) in the Federal Register. The NPP announces RSA's intent to replace its regional rehabilitation continuing education programs (RRCEPs) with ten technical assistance and continuing education (TACE) centers.

The background section of the proposed priority states in part:

To address the need for technical assistance and continuing education, RSA seeks to revise the structure of the RRCEP. Rather than supporting two types of regional centers as has been done under the current RRCEP model--those serving state VR agencies, CILS, and CAPs and those serving CRPs--RSA seeks to fund ten regional technical assistance and continuing education centers to provide technical assistance and continuing education for both employees of state VR agencies and all agency partners, (e.g., CILs, CAPs and CRPs).

On its face this looks like a move to streamline the system, consolidating functions and increasing coordination. The model itself is not a bad one, a centralized technical assistance and continuing education center in each region serving the full range of partners in the vocational rehabilitation system. The problem lies, not in what is said, but in what is left unsaid.

Why replace the name, “regional rehabilitation continuing education programs,” with the name, “technical assistance and continuing education centers”? In my reading of the NPP the reason seems clear: the change is intended to compensate for RSA's lack of ability to meet its responsibility to provide technical assistance, particularly to state VR agencies. In 2005, when the RSA regional offices were closed and nearly half of RSA's staff were eliminated, Department of Education leadership claimed that under its new centralized structure RSA would be able to provide better and more responsive technical assistance than it had in the past. In response to an overwhelming number of complaints objecting to the closure of the regional offices, the Department developed a list of talking points for staff to use in answering constituent letters. These contained vague assurances to the effect that technical assistance would be strengthened under the new system. For example, if an individual wrote expressing the concern that migrant programs would be left out, unable to obtain needed technical assistance, the talking points document instructed RSA staff to respond that migrant programs would not only maintain the level of assistance they previously received but would receive better, more responsive assistance than in the past.

The document contained the same assurance for all its programs. Tribal VR programs, services for blind and deaf individuals--all were told that the new system would increase RSA's ability to provide technical assistance, not lessen it. The new RSA would be all things to all people, better, faster, more responsive. Of course there was no way to prove otherwise, so the dismantling of the regional offices proceeded; and as was predicted, the reality bears little resemblance to the promise.

The loss of the regional offices has been devastating. It now appears that RSA is on track to compound one folly with yet another. Today RSA has virtually no capacity to provide meaningful technical assistance to state VR agencies. The NPP appears to be an attempt to fill this void by diverting funds from the continuing education program to replace the technical assistance function RSA is no longer able to provide.

The language of the NPP makes clear RSA's intent. For example, paragraph 1 reads in part that the new TACE center will: "Establish, in consultation with RSA, an annual work plan ...." The TACE center does not consult with the state VR agency, the Client Assistance Program, independent living centers, tribal VR programs, or any other community partners, only RSA. And what will the TACE center's work plan describe? According to the NPP, "... activities that the center will conduct to assist State VR agencies to accomplish the goals identified in their VR state plans and to achieve other performance and compliance goals identified by RSA's monitoring reports."

Paragraph 2 of the NPP goes on to discuss the process for conducting a needs assessment. It reads in part: "Conduct an annual needs assessment to identify technical assistance and continuing education needs of state VR agencies and agency partners...." While the language mentions "agency partners," the NPP continues by saying: "Each center must base its annual needs assessment on a thorough review of VR state plans, on-site monitoring reports, and annual review reports issued by RSA...."

If it is not already clear that the RSA envisions the new TACE centers to be its technical assistance (TA) arm, focusing exclusively, or nearly so, on the TA needs of state VR agencies as determined by RSA, paragraph four of the NPP goes on to require that the TACE center must "Participate as an observer in RSA's triennial monitoring of state VR agencies in its region by attending, at a minimum, each state VR agency's monitoring exit conference in order to gain a thorough understanding of each state VR agency's technical assistance and continuing education needs."

Of course RSA will claim that it does not intend to dismantle the RRCEPs. Yet the NPP makes clear that RSA sees the new TACE centers as merely an extension of RSA and its monitoring function. Technical assistance and, for that matter, continuing education are determined by deficiencies in state agency performance identified by RSA through its monitoring.

There is more in the NPP that raises concern. Paragraph 3 states that the Department of Education intends to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to amend 34 CFR 385.40 that would change the requirements concerning the composition of training project advisory committees. "The NPRM would add a requirement that an applicant include individuals who are knowledgeable about the special needs of individuals with disabilities from diverse groups, including minority groups. The purpose of this change would be to more clearly reflect the intent of the Department that project advisory committees include individuals who are familiar with the needs of individuals with disabilities from diverse groups, rather than individuals who are just members of such groups." What a condescending statement! The NPP suggests that minority individuals are today merely token members of advisory committees, offering nothing of substance. This gratuitous statement is made without a reference to any data supporting such a claim. Instead of minority people representing the perspective of minority individuals, RSA proposes to replace them with "individuals who are familiar with the needs of individuals with disabilities from diverse groups."

In summary, the NPP proposes replacing the present system of regional rehabilitation continuing education programs with a network of technical assistance and continuing education centers. This is more than a name change. From my reading of the NPP, it appears clear that the plan is to find a way to compensate for the loss of RSA's ten regional offices and the commensurate loss of sixty-five of its most knowledgeable and experienced staff. It also appears clear that the plan is to focus technical assistance on addressing the needs of state VR agencies, ignoring the fact that VR functions as an integrated system of partner programs in the states. Finally, it seems clear that technical assistance needs will no longer be jointly determined but will be exclusively driven by RSA monitoring findings. Certainly RSA will call foul, saying that I have misread the NPP and its intent. Perhaps so. I hope I am wrong; however, advocates did not misread the consequences of closing the regional offices more than two years ago, and I am afraid that we have not misjudged the consequences of RSA's reorganization of its continuing education program.

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