Lawmakers weigh expanding window for special education

Monitor staff
Published: 1/28/2022 3:30:19 PM
Modified: 1/28/2022 3:29:00 PM

New Hampshire lawmakers are considering expanding the eligibility window for New Hampshire’s special education law by one year, giving older students additional time to access services. But some school representatives are raising concerns about added cost.

House Bill 1513 would change the state’s special education statute to cover children ages 3 to 21 “inclusive,” rather than covering children older than 3 “but less than 21 years of age.” That means a 21-year-old would be counted under the statute as a “child with a disability” until they turned 22.

The designation is meaningful. Children with a disability, as defined by the state’s statute, are entitled to an individualized education program – a plan developed by their school district to provide them necessary special education. That plan can include instruction, transportation, and supportive services in school.

In testimony to the House Education Committee Friday, Disability Rights Center Senior Staff Attorney Karen Rosenberg hailed the proposed change, noting that it would provide the opportunity for certain students to take advantage of career coaching, internships, and additional guidance to transition to adult life.

“That extra year can be very meaningful to their success as adults when they are done with school,” Rosenberg said.

Currently, there are six students with disabilities in the state who are enrolled in a residential placement and turning 21 in the 2021 to 2022 school year, according to analysis provided to lawmakers by the Department of Education. There are 26 children who are turning 21 this school year in a separate school specifically for children with disabilities, paid for by school districts, the department said.

Chris Beeso, a member of the New Hampshire Association of Special Education Administrators legislative committee – and the special education director of Mascoma Valley Regional School District – cautioned lawmakers to be wary of costs.

“I think we all want more services for kids,” he said. But he said that passing the bill into law this year could disrupt budgets for school districts, which are being written now and will face town voters in February, March, and May. One additional year of services for students with disabilities can cost districts between $350,000 to $500,000 per student, depending on the services necessary. School districts also benefit from special education adequacy funding from the state, as well as federal funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Medicaid to Schools act.

“I think that we’re all in agreement with the spirit of the law; it’s how we at least get out ahead of it so we have enough appropriate time to be able to budget for it,” Beeso said.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Stephen Boyd, a Hooksett Republican, said Friday he was open to pushing the implementation date of the bill a year into the future to allow districts to prepare.

To Boyd, the bill would fix a longstanding point of frustration for certain parents of children with disabilities: federal disability law stipulates that children must be eligible for benefits up until their 22nd birthday, but state law requires it until the 21st birthday. Most New Hampshire schools follow the state law, he testified.

“I see this bill as a great opportunity to align federal and state law,” Boyd said. “…Ultimately, New Hampshire students would not be granted more services than what is mandated by federal law, but passing House Bill 1513 would ensure that they do not receive fewer.”

HB 1513 would not solve a different hurdle for parents of children with disabilities: Presently, school districts are required to provide services only until the student’s 21st birthday, regardless of where that falls in the school year. The bill would not change that framework, but would simply extend the end date to the student’s 22nd birthday.

The bill will be voted on by the House Education Committee in coming weeks; the committee will send its recommendation to the full House, which will take its own vote.

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor.

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