Special Education

Private Schools Pushing For IDEA Changes

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 14, 2003 5 min read
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In Evansville, Ind., Roman Catholic educators commend local public school administrators for how they’ve carried out obligations to private school students under the nation’s most far-reaching law for students with disabilities.

Staff members from the 23,000-student Evansville-Vanderburgh district, in accordance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, test children from private schools for potential disabilities. Then the educators work closely with private school administrators and teachers to serve the children who are found to have special needs.

“We do have a good relationship in our district, and we’re getting pretty much what the kids are entitled to,” said Gina R. Tucker, a special education teacher who splits her time between the two Catholic high schools in Evansville: Mater Dei and Reitz Memorial.

But that sort of cooperation isn’t the norm in many communities, contend representatives of national private school groups based in the Washington area. They argue that many school districts shirk their responsibility to serve private school students with disabilities, even to the limited extent that the IDEA calls for.

It’s “disgraceful” how many children with disabilities who attend Catholic schools are not getting any services under the law, said the Rev. William F. Davis, the deputy secretary for schools for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an interview last week.

The bishops’ conference is one of more than a dozen organizations urging Congress, currently engaging in an overhaul of the IDEA, to make changes so that the law better serves children in private schools.

A Feb. 5 letter to Congress and Secretary of Education Rod Paige, signed by 13 groups representing private schools, blames the lack of services on faults in the law, as well as “local misapplication or inconsistent application of the law.”

‘As Much as We Can’

Mary Kusler, the legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators, which represents superintendents and other district-level administrators in public education, said that if public schools haven’t met their legal obligation to private school students, it’s because the law hasn’t been funded sufficiently.

“We’re doing as much as we can with as little as we have,” she said.

When parents decide to send a child with a disability to a private school rather than a public school, they forfeit that child’s individual right under the IDEA to receive special services.

However, beginning with the 1997 reauthorization of the IDEA, the law has required public school districts to serve children with disabilities in private schools as a group.

What that means in practice is that a district must spend a proportion of its IDEA money on students at private schools. That proportion, under the law, should match the percentage of students with disabilities at private schools in the district boundaries. The district must test students from private schools thought to have a disability.

The law gives the district the final say, though, on how the IDEA money is spent on private school students: whether it is concentrated on a few students with acute disabilities, for instance, or spread out among many. But IDEA regulations say that the district must consult with private school representatives on such matters.

Many of the private school groups have no data on how many children with disabilities attend the schools that they represent.

The Conference of Catholic Bishops, however, does have such numbers, based on a study released in November. The study found that 7 percent of students in Catholic schools have disabilities, compared with 11.4 percent of students in public schools. But only 1 percent of students with disabilities at Catholic schools are receiving services paid for under IDEA, the report said.

Private school representatives say it’s been impossible to track whether public schools are filling their obligation to private school students because the IDEA does not require any public reporting of statistics concerning the students with disabilities who attend private schools.

That could change.

The House version of the reauthorization of the IDEA, approved April 30, requires public schools to report to their state departments of education how many students at private schools they’ve evaluated, the number they’ve found to have disabilities, and how many they ultimately serve.

In addition, the House version includes language, much of it now contained in federal regulations, saying that public school districts must consult with private schools. A Senate version of the bill is expected to make its first appearance later this month.

Father Davis of the Catholic bishops’ conference said he hopes the final IDEA rewrite will contain other changes to benefit private school students with disabilities.

Currently, for example, public schools have no obligation under federal law to provide special education services at the site of a private school, a requirement that private school groups are working to insert into the revised IDEA. They also want to ensure that all of the IDEA money allocated for private school students is used for direct services to students, not to pay for teacher training or administrative expenses.

Coming to the Table

Deborah A. Ziegler, the assistant executive director for public policy for the Council for Exceptional Children, a leading special education advocacy group, believes that the private school groups may be misguided in focusing so much on what’s in the law, rather than on how it is implemented.

The public schools “and the private schools need to come to the table to ensure they have policies and procedures in place that result in the best outcome for kids,” she said. “I’m not sure parties have taken the time to do that.”

In Indiana, Evansville’s private and public school people have taken that time. The Evansville- Vanderburgh district has done more for private school students even than what the law has required of it, Catholic educators there say.

Even so, those educators favor some of the IDEA changes their national advocates are pushing. The new reporting requirement in the House version, for instance, is a good idea, said Ms. Tucker, the special education teacher.

“I think we [private schools] have more students with disabilities than what people realize,” she said. “It could help to open the eyes of everyone.”

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