TALLAHASSEE -- For an afternoon, Mariah Harris wasn’t just the girl with Down syndrome. She was the star of the Senate Education Committee meeting.
“I need a real high school diploma,” the sixth-grader told the panel last week, her sequined headband glittering in the artificial light. “My dream is to go to college with my friends one day. I want to buy a condo and live on a golf course.”
Mariah and her mother traveled 452 miles from Broward County to champion a bill that they say would let the parents of special-needs students play a larger role in their child’s education. For Mariah, the proposed legislation could mean the difference between a special diploma and a standard diploma, her mother said.
The bill has spurred some of the most emotional moments of this year’s legislative session. But it has also met resistance from some advocacy groups, who say teachers and schools personnel — not parents — should have the final word in determining a child’s educational goals. A provision that would allow parents to contract with private therapists during school hours is also drawing ire; some observers see it as an attempt to further the school-privatization agenda.
“This usurps the power of the schools at the most basic level,” said Kathleen Oropeza, of the Orlando-based parent group, Fund Education Now. “Can you imagine a class of 15 [special-education] kids with 15 hired consultants in the classroom?”
Federal law requires all children with special needs to have an individualized educational plan, or IEP. The legally binding contract outlines the child’s educational goals and requires the school district to provide the appropriate services.
Under current law, parents and specialists help create the IEP, but the school district has the final say. The proposal in Tallahassee would change that paradigm, giving parents the last word. The school system would be able to challenge parent decisions before an administrative law judge.
As Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, envisions it: “The parent is empowered to be a part of that discussion, and will ultimately decide if it’s the right thing to do and have to sign off on it.”
The proposal would also enable parents to hire private personnel to support their special-needs children in school. And it would require teachers seeking professional recertification to complete some of their training with special-needs students.
The bill is on a fast track. Its Senate sponsors are Gardiner, a future Senate president; and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a former House speaker. Both have a personal connection to the proposed legislation; Gardiner’s son, Andy, has Down syndrome, as does Thrasher’s grandson, Mason.
The bill also has the support of the influential Foundation for Florida’s Future. The education non-profit established by former Gov. Jeb Bush lists “empowering parents” among its top priorities for the session.
But school systems have issues with the proposed legislation, particularly the provisions that would allow parents to contract with private education personnel during school hours.
There may also be legal issues, said Bob Cerra, who represents the Coalition for the Education of Exceptional Students.