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Advocates say special ed rights lost in school choice bill



Monitor staff
Thursday, December 21, 2017

A public school advocacy group writes in a new analysis that children with disabilities disproportionately enroll in public schools instead of private schools – and warns that a new school choice bill could aggravate those disparities.

Using 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Education – the most recent available – Reaching Higher New Hampshire found that just one percent of students at private schools in the state had a disability, compared to 15 percent of students in public schools.

“The magnitude and persistence of the disparities in enrollment raise questions about the structural factors that account for those disparities and also about how (Senate Bill 193 could put those students at a disadvantage,” said Dan Vallone, the organization’s policy director.

SB 193 would provide state funds to certain families withdrawing their children from public schools to spend on private schooling expenses. The legislation is, in part, actually targeted to children with disabilities – students on special education plans are one of four categories that qualify.

But students who take part in the program forfeit most of their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the landmark piece of federal legislation that guarantees children with disabilities a free, individually-tailored education. Religious schools aren’t even subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Bonnie Dunham, who works at the Parent Information Center, a Concord nonprofit that helps families with children with disabilities, said people typically don’t realize what resources they stand to lose when they withdraw their children from public schools.

“Very often the parent is very, very surprised to learn that their child will no longer have the same rights to special education as they did in the public system,” she said.

There is a scenario in which students attend private schools and retain all special education rights – that’s when the district itself places the child in a specialized, state-approved school, as part of their special education plan, because the public school can’t accommodate the child’s needs. In that case, the district foots the entire bill for the special placement, including tuition and transportation. This happens for students with the most complex disabilities.

But children whose parents simply choose the private sector – as in the case with SB 193 – are entitled to much less. Public school districts are still responsible for finding and identifying children with disabilities within their boundaries, even if they attend a private school. And there’s a pot of federal money school districts have to reserve for those students. But once the money runs out, students aren’t entitled to additional resources. And private schools themselves don’t have to accept or accommodate children with disabilities.

Reaching Higher argues it’s the relative lack of rights children have in the private sector that likely explains why so few families with disabilities take their kids out of the public system. They also point to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released in November that reviewed existing programs similar to the one proposed in New Hampshire. It found that families typically weren’t aware – or were misinformed – of what would change regarding their children’s special education rights.

Dunham said children with disabilities do sometimes end up finding a better fit in a private school. But students also get screened out during the application process – or pushed out when their needs aren’t accommodated and their grades suffer.

Dunham, whose child has a disability, said that in an “ideal world” legislation like the one being proposed would require private schools that accept public funds to meet the same standards public schools do when it comes to special education.

But while that may be “pipe dream,” Dunham said she’d at least like to see the bill require that parents be given adequate notice about what legal rights their children will lose.

“While parents can make whatever decision they believe is best – it’s very important that it be an informed decision,” she said.

SB 193 will come before the full House on Jan. 3. 

 

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)