SPRINGFIELD — Students with special needs will be able to finish their last year of high school regardless of when their birthday falls on the calendar, while those who lost a year or more of in-person schooling due to the pandemic and have since aged out of special education eligibility will be given another year to complete their schooling.
Those changes are the result of two bills Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Wednesday while also announcing a $200 million investment of federal funds to expand the state’s early childhood education workforce.
“Here in Illinois, our current special education law aligns with federal requirements,” Pritzker said at one bill signing ceremony in Chicago. “But if you believe a student has the right to stay in the classroom and not be yanked out on an arbitrary day that happens to be their birthday, our current laws just haven’t been good enough.”
Under federal law, students with special needs who have an individualized educational program are entitled to receive special education services through age 21. For many, that means their access to education services ends on the day before their 22nd birthday, regardless of where that date falls on the school calendar.
“They’ve been forced to leave their school, a place of growth, a place of comfort,” said Joshua Long, principal at Southside Occupational Academy High School in Chicago, a transition school for special-needs students aged 16 to 22. “And they’ve had to leave on some arbitrary day before their 22nd birthday, and then transition to their home, where they wait for up to 10 years for services as an adult with disabilities.”
House Bill 40, by Chicago Democrats Rep. Fran Hurley and Sen. Bill Cunningham, changes that law in Illinois so that when those students turn 22, they can complete the school year and graduate at the same time as their other classmates. The new law takes effect immediately.
“This bill has a huge impact on our young adults and all families as it will facilitate a smooth transition as they exit the school system,” said Anita Barraza, the parent of a special needs student. “Allowing them to stay will extend their ability to continue developing valuable life skills.”
Pritzker also signed House Bill 2748, which allows special education students who turned 22 while in-person instruction was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic to remain eligible for services through the end of the 2021-2022 school year.
“The intent of this bill is really to regain some of that learning that was lost because of circumstances created by the pandemic,” said Rep. Suzanne Ness, a Crystal Lake Democrat and the lead sponsor of the bill in the House. “Zoom classes were particularly difficult for this cohort of students and their families, and they were left with less options as a result. So this bill will extend that and give more opportunities to students to regain some of that learning loss, just like is going to happen for every other student in general education.”
Later in the day, Pritzker signed another education-related bill while also announcing that the state would invest $200 million of federal funds to provide additional training, mentorships and scholarships to bolster the state’s early childhood education workforce over the next two years.
Of that money, about $120 million will go toward financial support, including scholarships, to encourage child care workers to pursue advanced credentials, according to the governor’s office. Part of the money will also provide coaches, mentors and navigators with resources to help child care workers pursue their degrees.
“We are improving the lives of children across our state by giving them a new level of quality care by upskilling our early childhood workforce,” Pritzker said in a statement Wednesday. “We are providing educational opportunity for 5,600 people to earn degrees that will advance their careers. And we are advancing our pandemic economic recovery. All of these investments will pay dividends for years to come.”
House Bill 2878, by Rep. Katie Stuart, an Edwardsville Democrat, and Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas, a Chicago Democrat, also seeks to bolster the state’s early childhood education workforce by establishing a consortium among higher education institutions to develop ways that make it easier for child care workers to complete degree programs.
Under the bill, people who earn credentials as an early childhood educator as part of an associate degree program from a community college will automatically become eligible to transfer as a junior to a bachelor’s degree program at a public university.
“Ultimately, upskilling the incumbent early childhood workforce fosters racial, gender, geographic, and economic equity while enabling families to work, go to school and provide a safe and high quality environment for children to learn and grow,” Pacione-Zayas said in a statement. “They are the workforce behind the workforce who held us together during the pandemic. This new law will dismantle barriers and streamline pathways for diverse early childhood professionals to meet educational goals and foster economic stability.”
A federal district judge has approved a settlement agreement between the education department and disability rights advocates in the Bronx, resolving a four-year-old lawsuit that challenged the city’s process for allocating certain special education services.
The settlement, in effect for three years, requires the education department to make a series of changes to the way it provides what are called “related services,” which include occupational therapy and mental health counseling, among other supports for students with disabilities.
Many schools do not have enough on-site staff to provide these services to all the students who are entitled to them. When that happens, schools can give parents a voucher to cover the cost of the service. But a number of barriers prevent parents from using vouchers. Families sometimes struggle to find providers willing to travel to their neighborhoods, for example, and many providers are simply unresponsive or not taking on more clients.
As a result, vouchers are often left unused. About half of the 9,154 vouchers issued went unused in the 2015-16 school year, according to a report from the public advocate’s office. The voucher system disadvantages poor neighborhoods the most, particularly those in far-reaching corners of the city that are more difficult for providers to access.
A 2017 class-action lawsuit brought by nonprofit Bronx Independent Living Services and two students with disabilities in the Bronx challenged the voucher system. The lawsuit argued that the education department was failing to provide appropriate related services and violated the law.
Last month — four years after the initial lawsuit — a judge authorized a settlement that applies to students in the Bronx who have Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. The agreement does not remove the voucher program altogether, but it does include policies meant to reduce the city’s reliance on that system.
The education department must increase the number of occupational therapy supervisor positions in the Bronx from three to five, for example. It will also increase funding by 25% for a loan forgiveness program to attract university students studying to become related services providers to the education department. Hiring decisions must also be made earlier, ahead of the fall semester.
“The focus is on moving the hiring up earlier in the summer with the hope that this can allow the DOE to better plan their needs for the upcoming school year,” said Rebecca Serbin, staff attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, which served as the plaintiffs’ counsel in the lawsuit.
Other policies in the agreement are meant to make the voucher system work more efficiently for families in the Bronx. In some cases, students wait weeks to receive their vouchers, which in turn delays the start of their services. The settlement outlines detailed timelines for issuing vouchers. (In most cases, they are to be delivered within 16 days of when school starts.)
Schools are also required to appoint a non-school-based “related service authorization liaison” whose job is to support parents in using their vouchers or getting make-up services. The education department must also ensure the provider list is accurate and updated.
“It’s vitally important to our community that they are able to access the services they need when they need them,” said Brett Eisenberg, executive director of Bronx Independent Living Services, a nonprofit that served as a plaintiff in the case and works with students with disabilities. “This agreement really makes sure that happens.”
The settlement comes at a time when the education department has been struggling to provide adequate services to students with disabilities across the five boroughs. During the pandemic, staffing shortages and virtual learning meant thousands of students missed out on crucial services, such as physical and occupational therapy, that were difficult to administer virtually.
In an acknowledgment of those disruptions, city officials announced an intensive effort to help students with IEPs. All of those students, roughly 200,000, are eligible for special programming after school and on Saturdays.
A Saturday programming option is also laid out in the settlement agreement. Bronx students who are eligible for make-up related services can make use of “Saturday Sites,” which will offer occupational therapy and speech therapy. For all other make-up related services, the education department will make alternative arrangements.
In a statement, the education department recognized the settlement as progress for students with disabilities.
“It is critical that the needs of all students with disabilities are met, and we’re pleased to have reached this settlement through which we will invest in new programs, processes and resources that will make it easier for families to get support,” education department spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon wrote in an email. “We look forward to the progress and real results students will experience as a result of the settlement.”
Still, some question whether the agreement goes far enough in addressing the problems with the voucher system.
Lori Podvesker, a policy expert at INCLUDEnyc, an advocacy group that focuses on special education, noted that to receive make-up services, families must request the education department, a process that puts the burden of accessing services back on parents.
“It’s outrageous that they are putting the onus back on families,” said Podvesker. She added that she’d like to see the obligations in the settlement document expanded beyond the Bronx to the other four boroughs.
“These issues are not just limited to the Bronx,” she said. “This is pervasive.”
A Texas special education hearing officer will decide whether the Killeen Independent School District will have to pay a family for required special education services that the family says the district did not provide their daughter.
The first of four daylong due process hearings between KISD and Stephanie Moody, whose daughter previously attended KISD, and their respective attorneys, will begin Wednesday morning.
Moody’s daughter has been diagnosed with more than one learning disability. Now 10 years old, she attends another public school district in Bell County.
“Samantha is about to enter 5th grade,” Moody told the Herald. “When we moved, the new school district decided to do their own full evaluation, which revealed that Samantha is autistic. She’s receiving support in the new school district that she didn’t receive in Killeen. They should not have to carry the burden of making up for what KISD did not do.”
Following four due process hearings, the hearing officer has until Oct. 5 to make a decision on Moody’s formal complaint.
The Herald sent questions to the district regarding its special education services.
“Killeen ISD is not able to comment on an ongoing case without a parent’s consent for disclosure,” said KISD Chief Communications and Marketing Officer Taina Maya, in an email on Tuesday.
An 8-year ordeal
The Moody’s moved to the Killeen area due to the Army.
“We only moved here due to my husband’s assignment to Fort Hood,” said Moody, whose husband is now retired from the Army.
The mom said their family’s ordeal began in 2013, before Samantha turned 3.
“She was first evaluated by KISD then, and it’s been one struggle after the other since,” Moody said.
A cascading series of issues began even before Samantha’s enrollment at KISD, according to Moody.
“KISD denied her early intervention services through the PPCD (Preschool Program for Children with Disabilities), and accompanied her denial with a letter explaining how her disabilities were not ‘profound’ enough,” Moody said.
The entire situation should have been handled differently, she said.
“The more I advocated, the more the problems grew,” Moody said.
Moody has been through the Texas Education Agency’s process of resolving complaints and disputes.
On July 10, 2019, she submitted a formal complaint to the TEA, alleging six violations of special education laws. After an investigation, the agency on Sept. 5, 2019, found five of the complaints to be in part or fully substantiated, according to the agency’s 23-page report.
“After I won, I entered a meeting thinking we were going to finally correct their wrongs,” she said.
Instead, KISD appealed the TEA’s decision and hired at least one attorney.
Moody said she was successful during a second TEA investigation.
The years-long back-and-forth will culminate with a hearing officer’s decision later this year. Hearing officers in due process hearings, like judges, are able to award monetary reimbursements. State of Texas special education hearing officers are private practice attorneys and are not employees of the TEA or school district, according to the TEA’s “Special Education Dispute Handbook.”
Days of TEA hearings coming up
The Moody’s attorney is Sonja Kerr, a partner with Austin law firm Connell Michael Kerr, LLP.
Kerr told the Herald that during the hearings, she intends to prove that KISD violated federal law.
“We’ll be trying to show the hearing officer that the school district actually denied Samantha a ‘free appropriate public education,’” Kerr said. “The school’s lawyer will be trying to show that they did. If we prevail, Samantha would be entitled to various remedies, including reimbursement for services such as tutoring or therapy.”
Since 1975 when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), was passed, children with disabilities have been entitled to access to a “free appropriate public education,” or FAPE, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
As part of that federal law, all public school districts are required to provide an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for every special education student. Kerr said that Samantha’s IEP was not individualized to her needs and that the district was not collaborative with Moody.
Moody wants members of the community to know about her family’s experiences.
“We’ve chosen to have an open, public hearing so that my daughter is not another ‘hush hush’ case,” Moody said. “I believe there are many other military and non-military families with children with special needs who are put into a bad situation. I’m getting the information into the public eye to help prevent this from happening to the next child. This has taken an extensive toll on our entire family, both mentally and financially. I wouldn’t wish our experience on anyone.”
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