Everyday there is a parent somewhere in the state fighting for the educational rights of their child with special needs. That parent’s fight might have just gotten easier.
Eighteen years ago, a group of parents of students with disabilities filed a lawsuit against the state charging that the state system for funding their education violated state and federal law. Over time, the lawsuit became a class action on behalf of all students in the state with a disability. At issue were both the funding for and the method of providing services to students with disabilities.
Finally, last week, a consent order agreed to by both parties and approved by Federal Judge John D. Holschuh was announced that partially resolves the case. The settlement changes the way that the Ohio Department of Education implements the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which is designed to ensure that students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate education. The department is required to improve the way it monitors school district special education programs, to handle complaints in a timely fashion, and to ensure the law’s procedural safeguards are met.
While this partial settlement is a victory for the parents trying valiantly to provide their children a proper education, it is going to take awhile for districts to become fully compliant with the law in order to meet the individual educational needs of each student. In addition, the case has not settled the way Ohio funds special education for students.
The consent order, highlighting the important role of the Department of Education, provides that in the event that school districts are unwilling or unable to comply with IDEA the department must “…provide or arrange for the provision of services directly to the student.” Until such time as all schools are compliant and the funding issues are resolved, parents will need the flexibility to find the school that best meets the educational needs of their child.
There is another way to provide students the individualized services they need. Ohio could create a scholarship for students with special needs that empowers parents to find the educational setting that works for their child.
This is not a new idea. In fact, parents of students with disabilities in Florida have had this option now for ten years. The popular program, known as the McKay Scholarship, is being used by over 20,000 students in the Sunshine state.
Here in Ohio, the Autism Scholarship already recognizes that a one-size fits all educational system has left some students with special needs behind. It offers parents the ability to find programs that provide specialized instruction from certified teachers and focus on the social and academic needs of students with autism.
All parents of students with special needs should have that ability. There is pending legislation, Senate Bill 6, which would create a special education scholarship and allow up to 3 percent of students with disabilities in grades K-12 to attend alternative public or private special education programs.
If this legislation becomes law, parents would for the first time be on an equal footing with school districts when important educational decision affecting their children are made. A scholarship, along with the important changes mandated by the recently decided lawsuit, could dramatically change the educational environment for students with special needs.
During the past18 years, we lost a generation of students that could have benefited from an early ruling and a special education scholarship. Ohio should act quickly to ensure all students truly have access to an education where their needs can be met.