March 25, 2013

Lawmakers grapple with future of special needs students

A controversial question has spurred an emotional debate in Tallahassee: Who should have the final say over a special needs child’s education?

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.

“Empowering parents is a great thing,” Cerra said. “But it is the school district that is legally required to provide a free and appropriate education. Some school districts have actually been sued because they went along with the parents.”

Oropeza, of Fund Education Now, sees broader problems with the bill. She considers it part of an agenda driven by the Foundation for Florida’s Future that she said aims to dismantle public schools. The foundation is pushing a separate bill called Parent Empowerment in Education, or the parent trigger, that would let parents demand sweeping changes at failing schools.

“They are using the semantics of parent empowerment,” said Oropeza. “But what they are doing is using parents as a tool to hurt teachers and public schools.”

The debate has been intensely emotional.

Last week, Jeanette Ramos, a Broward County mother, testified in front of the Senate Education Committee about her efforts to secure a classroom aide for her daughter, kindergartner Aniah Daniels.

“I did not prevail because my input is not taken into consideration,” Ramos said.

Nancy Linley-Harris, Mariah’s mom, described her fight to put the girl on the path to a standard diploma.

When Mariah entered middle school, her mother said, “it seemed as if there was a strategic plan to remove her from being able to get a real high-school diploma anymore… The IEP team, with the blessing from the district [special-education] department, purposefully dumbed down all of my daughter’s quality educational IEP goals and redid her entire document without me.”

Linley-Harris appealed to an administrative law judge, she said, “and lost miserably.”

Said Mariah: “My mom gets sad and cries after my IEP meetings. I don’t know why.”

The education committee responded with a round of applause and voted 8-0 in support of the proposal. The bill won the unanimous support of a House education panel later in the week.

“The question of whether parents should be considered full partners in their child’s education has been settled,” said Richard LaBelle, executive director of the St. Petersburg-based Family Network on Disabilities. “This is what full partnership looks like.”

Miami Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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