Sponsors of ESE Learning Bills Say Parents Need More Input

Mar 27, 2013

Not all students who have disabilities require specialized instruction. But for those who do need extra support, they get individual learning plans or IEP’s. The effort to give parents a greater say in those IEP’s is being led in the Senate by two lawmakers who take the issue personally.

 “We do a lot of things around here, but nothing as important as looking out for these kids with unique abilities," said Republican Senator John Thrasher, whose grandson has Down Syndrome.

Students with disabilities and their families face different challenges when it comes to navigating their education. Some require more assistance than others, and under federal law, they’re required to have an individual learning plan, called an IEP. Many times, those plans are crafted without much input from parents, but bills in the legislature are aimed at changing  that. Thrasher is co-sponsor of one of the bills in the Senate.

IEP’s are written by a team. State and federal law already require parents, school and district officials, and others who provide related services—like a speech therapist to serve on that team. Parents can also bring others into the group—but that doesn’t happen in every district, and Senator Andy Gardiner, the  bill’s sponsor, whose son also has Down Syndrome, says it’s time to reinforce a parents right to be heard.

“We’ve heard stories of families that talked about the feat about going through the IEP process, of walking into a room with 17 administrators, and it’s just that mother or that father, trying to do what’s best for that child.” TRT: 15s

The IEP process can be overwhelming and intimidating for some parents, and a companion version of the proposal in the House would require districts to have forms that parents and officials would both sign verifying that districts didn’t interfere in that parents right to have others present.

Districts say it only adds to the paperwork. They’re also concerned about provisions dealing with how federal funds for students with disabilities are distributed between traditional schools and charters. Districts say they don’t usually give out money, and instead, convert those dollars to services—like an extra teacher here, or another piece of equipment there. Districts would be required to give some federal funds directly to charter schools.  But those concerns are minor to supporters.

 “No one knows your child better, than a mother or father. A parent. This is a...I won’t say a “fight” but a journey that never ends with our children," said Democratic Senator Maria Sachs.

The measures also address how students with disabilities factor into school grades last year was the first year that special schools catering to disabled students were assigned letter grades. The practice is mandated by federal law. There’s still disagreement on whether the state should grade these schools, but Gardiner says proposals like his are aimed at helping students with disabilities become more accepted, and integrated into public schools.

 “My idea of inclusion is that child with a unique ability in a regular classroom as much as possible--80-90 percent of the day. Sadly, some school districts have that child, who is in a separate location, brought in for art and music. That’s not my idea of inclusion. We believe this is a step in the right direction. This is the start," he said.

The House and Senate bills require all teachers seeking recertification to take a course in exceptional student education. The measure passed its Senate committee and is heading to its last stop in that chamber. A companion bill is also moving in the House.