When parents hire Marcie Lipsitt, it means their child is not succeeding or reaching their potential in school.
For most people “back to school” might mean new pencils and new books. For one Franklin woman, it also means new state special education and civil rights complaints.
Marcie Lipsitt, 62, is a special education advocate who spends her time fighting for students’ rights.
Every child in the United States is entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), regardless of race, ethnic background, religion, sex, economic status and disability. When a child has a disability, they may need support in order to learn in a typical classroom as successfully as their able-bodied peers.
Enter the Individualized Education Program (IEP), a legally binding document crafted for each student to provide access to an education.
When parents hire Lipsitt, it means their child is not succeeding or reaching their potential in school. Parents are often unfamiliar with the laws and what their child is legally entitled to.
Lipsitt’s schedule is hectic; she spends her time answering emails and phone calls in between attending several meetings daily.
“Every day of the Michigan school year, I have meetings,” said Lipsitt, who started her advocacy work when her son Andrew, now 32, was in elementary school. “I don’t keep track of how many students I’ve advocated for because the number would probably frighten me!
“I’m the Michigan Department of Education’s worst nightmare,” Lipsitt said, who describes her job as “going to the U.S. Department of Education and their office of Special Ed and basically ratting out Michigan for some pretty bad behavior.”
Fighting for Better Education
When Gov. John Engler stripped the authority of the elected state board members of the Michigan Department of Education and gave it to the non-elected state superintendent in 1996, Lipsitt said it made education in Michigan much worse.
“We’ve had five of these non-elected state superintendents, who have all the authority of a dictator,” Lipsitt said. “There’s no transparency; no one holds them accountable.”
One example that always gets Lipsitt riled up is the Highly Qualified Teacher Provision in the then-named No Child Left Behind Act. The provision stated that teachers were required to pass the state teacher licensing exam in the subject that they teach.
“In 2008, Michigan was the only state in the nation that was allowing people to teach high school special ed after simply passing the test to become an elementary teacher!” Lipsitt said. “What can a student with a disability learn in a resource room from a teacher who can’t understand algebra himself? Kids were being taught by teachers who weren’t trained.”
In 2009, Lipsitt filed suit against the state of Michigan, and the U.S Department of Education found Michigan in formal violation of two national laws and required them to rectify the matter immediately.
In 2016, the Highly Qualified Teacher provision was removed altogether, which Lipsitt said broke her heart. “That’s the end of pushing teachers to be better trained.”
Lipsitt has lived in Michigan her entire life, with the exception of her first two college years in California. She and her husband, Eric, are affiliated with Temple Israel.
“My mother said I was born carrying a soapbox,” Lipsitt said.
Without laws in place, school was very different back in the 1970s when Lipsitt was a student. Her younger sister, Lori, had learning disabilities and an auditory processing disorder and was bounced between second and first grade numerous times, often without warning and without her parent’s prior knowledge.
“Experiences like that always result in negative feelings that can last a lifetime,” Lipsitt said. “My mother knew things were warped, but she didn’t know how to navigate the system. I became Lori’s voice … just like I later became the voice for many children with special needs in school.”
Lipsitt has always felt pulled toward civil rights movements and helping others. Her family is used to seeing Lipsitt feeding people on the streets and buying homeless people warm coats for the winter.
Help Your Child
Children are eligible for an IEP if they qualify for special ed. There are 13 areas of eligibility: autism spectrum disorder, cognitive impairment, physical impairment, deaf-blind, severe multiple impairment, early childhood developmental delay, specific learning disability, speech and language impairment, vision impairment, hearing impairment, traumatic brain injury, emotional impairment and otherwise health impaired.
When children do not fall into any of those categories, they may be entitled to a 504 plan, which also offers customized accommodations and special education services.
To initiate the process for an IEP, “A parent needs to write a letter stating that they want their child to be evaluated for special ed services. It could be emailed to the principal, Department of Special Ed or the school psychologist — it doesn’t really matter who,” Lipsitt said. “What’s most important is the date on that letter, because legally, they have 10 school days to respond to that written request.”
The first meeting is called the Review of Existing Evaluation and Data (REED) where the parent, school psychologist, principal and support staff will review how the student is doing in school and determine how the child needs to be evaluated.
At the REED, the IEP meeting will be scheduled. The goal is to identify the child’s strengths and concerns, go over assessment scores, and figure out the accommodations, goals and objectives and special education program and related services which will best help the child access his education and school environment.
If a child is found ineligible for an IEP, parents have a right to request an independent educational evaluation (IEE), where the child will be evaluated by a neutral party — at the school district’s expense.
“Again,” Lipsitt warned. “This request has to be in writing. Everything has to be in writing.”
Local parent Kelly Sessel first hired Lipsitt when her daughter Ariel Fink, now 25, was not succeeding in middle school. The school was not helping her until Lipsitt started turning up at school meetings as Ariel’s advocate.
“Marcie knows everything inside and out,” Sessel said. “She fought for our daughter and did a wonderful job. Ariel ended up getting everything she deserved.”
Ariel’s IEP gave her small classes, extra time for testing, and even said someone should read her the information, instead of having to read it herself.
“Ariel ended up graduating in 2014 with a 3.6 average; she would not have graduated without Marcie’s help,” Sessel said.
Last year, Lipsitt helped more than 60 families file administrative complaints against the Department of Education. Yes, there was a pandemic and things abruptly turned on its head around the world, but that didn’t cancel out America’s students’ rights to a FAPE.
“The IEPs were supposed to still hold up, even in the pandemic,” Lipsitt said.
She’s hoping some students will win an additional school year; for others she’s hoping for varying amounts of tutoring and/or extra speech and occupational therapy.
Beyond helping individual kids and families, Lipsitt also works on a more global front. In 2014, she began checking all state education department websites around the country and found that all except two, Virginia and Maryland, had accessibility issues.
Pictures need “alt-text” in order to be accessible for people who are blind; videos have to be closed-captioned properly for people who are deaf.
Within a few years, Lipsitt had filed about 2,400 web accessibility complaints against all of these state education departments — ironically some were specialized schools for children who are hearing or vision impaired. More than 1,000 schools agreed to make changes to their website.
“It was my biggest contribution to date,” Lipsitt said.
In 2018, the Federal Office for Civil Rights decided it was waste of time to deal with so many complaints from a single person and dismissed 672 of them, a motion which was quickly nicknamed the “Marcie Lipsitt rule” by attorneys around the country.
“I was outraged that a federal department would unlawfully violate my civil rights,” Lipsitt said, who has jokingly referred to herself as a ‘frequent flier’ with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights.
She promptly created a national media storm for awareness and COPAA, NFB and NAACP filed a federal lawsuit against them in June 2018. In the February 2020 settlement, the rule that dismissed Lipsitt’s complaints was rescinded, and the unlawfully dismissed complaints were reopened. There’s now an Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation pending on this issue.
Most people might find the entire public education system daunting, and there are definitely many kinks in the system, but Lipsitt has no plans to quit. There’s plenty more work to do, and, she says voters have more power than they realize.
“People seem to refer to public education like it’s a person, but it’s not. Public education is a set of federal rules, policies and procedures that are only going to be effective if we choose to hold them accountable,” said Lipsitt. “That’s what keeps me awake and forever fighting this tortured mission.”