As the day begins at Paul VI Catholic High School here, 12 students in the Options program are engaged in a religion lesson in their small classroom near the cafeteria.
They flip through their Jesus and You textbooks while Kathleen Leffas, who teaches courses in the Catholic faith at the school, asks them which part of a picture shows the Holy Spirit.
“You can’t really see it,” says 18-year-old Erin Thompson, a junior. “But it’s the dove.”
The children in the Options program all have developmental disabilities. Peer mentors—their fellow students—accompany them to all their classes, making sure they are integrated into the life of the 1,150-student Roman Catholic school in this suburb of Washington.
Private school students like these also are among the intended beneficiaries of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and parents and private school advocates hope changes in the newest version of the law will make it easier for them to get school district services without having to enroll in public schools.
Mary Donovan, who enrolled her 16-year-old daughter, Caitlin, in the Options program, said her child would have been lost in her neighborhood high school. At Paul VI High, “the peer-mentoring program they have is phenomenal,” she said. “I really wanted her to feel part of a school.”
Under the IDEA, school districts are required to spend a proportionate share of their federal special education funding on students who were enrolled by their parents in private schools. For instance, if private schools enroll 10 percent of all the students with special needs in a district, the district should spend 10 percent of its federal IDEA allocation on services for private school students. That proportionate-share formula hasn’t changed since the 1997 reauthorization of the federal law.
But the version of the law that Congress enacted late last year includes some changes that private school supporters have welcomed. For example, districts now must provide services to students who attend private schools within the district’s boundaries, even if the student resides in another school district. In the 1997 version of the IDEA, districts were required to offer services only to the students who lived within that district’s boundaries.
Among the other changes in the 2004 law are requirements that private and public schools have “timely and meaningful” consultations on special education services and that districts maintain written affirmations that such meetings have taken place.
Also under the latest reauthorization, districts are required to report to the state the number of private school students who have been evaluated, and how many have been determined to have some kind of disability. Districts also must record and report the number of private school children they evaluate, the number determined to have a disability, and the total number served.
The U.S. Department of Education is drafting regulations interpreting the reauthorized IDEA, which are scheduled to be made final by the end of the year. The rules should define in detail just what provisions such as “timely and meaningful” consultations mean, department officials say.
Advocates for private education say the revised IDEA’s changes will work well for their students.
The 1997 version of the law “wasn’t as honored as it should have been,” said Sister Dale McDonald, the director of public policy and education research for the National Catholic Educational Association, a Washington-based professional group for Roman Catholic schools and educators. Much of the new language in the 2004 law comes from Education Department regulations written for the previous version.
No national organization tracks the total number of students with disabilities in private schools, as states are required to do with public school students. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has such numbers for Catholic schools.
Based on a study last year, the bishops’ conference found that 7 percent of students in Catholic schools had disabilities, compared with 11.4 percent of students in public schools. But only 1 percent of students with disabilities at Catholic schools were receiving services financed under the IDEA, the report said.
Sister McDonald believes that as the most recent reauthorization moved through Congress, the statistics compiled by the bishops’ group prompted lawmakers to make some changes to strengthen the connection between public and private schools.
She believes that the change requiring districts to provide services to students who attend private schools in those districts is a positive step that could lead to more provision of special education services on site at private schools. She said many private school parents have chosen not to accept services in the past because that has meant that their child had to get on a bus and return to the home district, missing part of the school day.
On-site services “may be more efficient,” Sister McDonald said. “What they’re spending money on in transportation should go down if they’re providing on-site services,” she said, referring to school districts.
Joe McTighe, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, or CAPE, a Germantown, Md.-based umbrella organization for national private education groups, said that shift in responsibility for districts should end up being “a wash” for them.
Using the District of Columbia as an example, he said that the school system there would now have to provide special education services for students who attend private schools within Washington’s city limits. However, it will no longer have to provide services for city students whose parents send them to private schools in surrounding school districts.
The District of Columbia “can’t just look at the kids it is gaining. It has to look at the kids it is losing,” Mr. McTighe said, referring to the potential financial impact of the change.
Judd Schemmel, the executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools, a 765-school consortium representing about 85 percent of the private schools in the state, called the shift in responsibility for different sets of private school students “an important change, and it is a change that will take some time to take root.”
Eventually, Mr. Schemmel said, “I think this will be easier for the public school district, in terms of the administrative chain of command.”
Public School Concerns
However, public school groups say the changes may be onerous.
“We have a tremendous number of concerns,” said Nancy Reder, the director of governmental relations for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Directors of Special Education.
One problem, Ms. Reder said, is the issue of reimbursement across state lines. Federal funding for special education flows to the states, which distribute the money to districts. As long as a student attends school in his or her home state, the funding stream is relatively easy to maintain.
But that doesn’t account for students who may attend private schools in other states. That’s a big concern for states such as New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and others in the Northeast, where there is a strong boarding school tradition, Ms. Reder said.
Another potential problem involves the lack of qualified special education teachers to provide services.
“If you have a school district that is already short-staffed, now they’re going to be called upon to provide services for more people,” Ms. Reder said.
Robert Runkel, the Montana state director of special education services, said his state has some very small school districts that happen to be home to comparatively large private schools. The 68-student Ashland, Mont., district is home to a 350-student campus of St. Labre Indian School, a Catholic school with two other campuses in the state. The Ashland district’s resources could be pinched when it comes to evaluating St. Labre students for special education, Mr. Runkel said.
In Fairfax County, Va., where Paul VI High School is located, both public school officials and private school parents are still learning just how the latest version of the IDEA will apply to them.
The 166,000-student Fairfax County district is the largest in the state. As of this past December, there were 23,702 special education students attending school in the county, 284 of whom were enrolled in private schools, or a little over 1 percent. Most of those private school students receive speech and language services at their neighborhood public schools.
Parents at Paul VI say that as they understand the law, it’s still their responsibility to seek out services from the district.
One Paul VI student in the Options program attends speech classes once a week at a public school. Other parents plan to re-enroll their children in public schools once they graduate from Paul VI; the Fairfax County district offers career and employment skills training for students with disabilities up to age 21, as required under the IDEA.
“You have to maintain your child’s eligibility and take the initiative to obtain any services, and then they try to accommodate you within their mode of providing services,” said Bill Dalgetty, whose 19-year-old daughter Emily is a senior at Paul VI.
“I don’t believe that they will take any action unless you request it,” he said.
Patricia Addison, the director of special education for the Fairfax County district and the president of the Virginia Council of Administrators of Special Education, said that her staff works with private school parents who come to the school district requesting help. She said the district also sends letters to private schools in the county, to make them aware of the services it will provide.
Private school students in Fairfax County receive free special education evaluations upon request and, if they require services, are each given an “individualized service plan.”
Ms. Addison said she wonders just how much more work the 2004 special education law will mean for her, and whether she will have to devote resources to tracking students from outside the county.
“We currently screen every child that’s new to Fairfax County public schools. Do we now have to screen every child that’s new to [a private] school?” Ms. Addison said. “I think there’s going to have to be a much more formal and time-consuming process, from what I’ve read.”