Disability advocates raise alarm about rulemaking bill

  • Forrest Beaudoin-Friede is one of the people who testified against House Bill 620, which could curtail special education services in New Hampshire. —Courtesy photo

Monitor staff
Published: 6/21/2017 1:25:14 PM

Disability advocates are once again raising the alarm about House Bill 620, legislation intended to limit unfunded mandates, saying a last-minute conference committee amendment imperils protections for special education students.

Leadership in both the House and Senate said they expect Republican majorities to back the amended bill, which would prohibit the State Board of Education from writing rules to exceed federal minimum standards if they would result in “unreimbursed expenditures or administrative burdens on the local school district.” Rules have the force of law, and state agencies write them to fill in the details after state or federal legislatures pass new statutes.

“This legislation allows the State Board of Education to continue to enact rules regarding special needs students while leaving existing laws in place. This legislation prevents the downshifting of costs and mandates on local communities,” said House majority leader Dick Hinch, a Merrimack Republican, in a statement released this week.

But advocates say the bill, would put special education protections that were written into New Hampshire’s existing rules in danger.

“If it passes then it means that the next time our rules need to be reauthorized, it will mean that we will be forced to lower our standards to the absolute lowest minimums allowed by federal law,” said Bonnie Dunham, who works at the Parent Information Center in Concord, a resource center for children with disabilities. “It means to me, ‘if it’s not free and it’s not easy – we shouldn’t do it.’ ”

Examples of rules that affect special education students include the requirement that examiners who determine whether a child has a disability be certified or licensed, and that districts must respond within 21 days when parents ask for a meeting about a child’s individualized education plan – or IEP – which governs what special education services a student receives.

Meanwhile, special education costs continue to skyrocket in New Hampshire as both state and federal reimbursements remain stagnant. That led the state’s School Boards Association to back the bill.

Despite her son’s complex needs, Dunham said he got a modified high school diploma and is now employed. Dunham said that’s thanks in part to the approach New Hampshire – which graduates a higher proportion of students with disabilities than most states – takes to special education.

“I don’t want to look at the parents of a 3-year-old and say: your son is going to have less,” she said. “That just seems cruel.”

Advocates had successfully pushed back against the bill earlier this session, getting legislators to significantly soften the language.

But in a conference committee last week, Sen. John Reagan, a Deerfield Republican, reinserted tougher language.

“The committee of conference purpose was to indemnify the towns and school districts from having to pay for something that was mandated (by the state). It gives them an out from a requirement that was more stringent than the federal requirement,” he said.

The House and Senate are set to vote on the bill Thursday, the last day of the session.

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

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